Winter 2011 issue -- The Christmas catalogs start arriving in September, a trickle that becomes a flood by Thanksgiving. They pile up in colorful drifts until it’s time for my favorite part of Christmas: choosing gifts for the people on my list.
Christmas has roots in Christianity and in Roman and other pagan cultures, all overlaid, especially in America, with the commercial fervor of buying for gift-giving, entertainment, and other revelries. Though I am not a Christian, I love much of the music inspired by the Christ story. And I like having a tree to decorate, though I am not a Druid. But what I like best is the commercial Saturnalia. Christmas is a holiday to celebrate consumption, as Thanksgiving celebrates production.
For me, the meaning of Christmas is lying on the couch on a cold November weekend and leafing through catalogs—looking for presents, window-shopping, marveling at the profusion of goods on display in my own personal souk: clothing of every kind, for every taste in color and cut, at every price level, in every size; games, puzzles, toys, books, music, sports equipment, and every other form of amusement; household goods of every description, from storage solutions to recliners to bathroom décor; and a cornucopia of food: preserves, fresh fruit, aged beef, fruitcake (of course), and on and on.
I get only a tiny fraction of the catalogs mailed by the 20,000-some mail-order venders in the U.S., which in turn represent only a fraction of the vast number of goods that are produced and traded in our economy. But my sample is more than enough to give me a heightened awareness—and appreciation—that I dwell in the house of capitalism.
Catalogs reveal the sheer scope and density of human invention. Here in the HomeTrends catalog is an eyeglass tray for my bedside table, with a faint glow for finding my glasses in the dark ($8.99). And here’s a rack for stacking flying pans in the kitchen cabinet without letting them scratch each other’s non-stick surfaces ($9.99). Brookstone offers no less than 25 devices for self-massage, from a simple ankle wrap to the OSIM uAstroTM Zero-Gravity Massage Chair ($3,495). And then there are all the electronic gadgets that mix and match functions in every conceivable combination—like the Video Spy Pen that lets you write and video-record at the same time, should the need arise (Brookstone, $99.95); or the Swiss Army Knife with a USB thumb drive in place of one of the usual tools, for data backup while camping (Office Depot, $69.99); or, to speed up your morning ablutions, the fog-free Weather Reporting Shower Mirror whose “backlit LCD panel displays indoor/outdoor temperature, humidity, and a weather forecast based on barometric pressure” (Hammacher-Schlemmer, $29.95 on sale).
None of these products will make the history books as a world-changing invention. But that is the point. Inventiveness is not limited to the top of the pyramid of ability. It exists at all levels. For every interaction we have with the world, it seems, someone has thought about how to make that action easier, faster, more efficient, or just more fun. For every taste in food, or clothing, or décor, someone has tried to satisfy that taste.
And the merchants selling these goods have taken the trouble to come to me and display their wares in the comfort of my home. Most catalog mailers can expect no more than 2-3% of the people on their lists to buy anything. Yet so eager are they for my business that they have prepared full-color catalogs, kept me on their mailing lists, and set up websites to make the transaction easy. The major companies such as Lands’ End, L.L. Bean, and Victoria’s Secret even promise to deliver Christmas orders placed as late as December 23. If the profusion of products highlights the creativity that capitalism unleashes, the marketers reveal the benevolence of capitalist trade.
Karl Marx once wrote, “the history of industry and the established objective existence of industry are the open book of man’s essential powers, the exposure to the senses of human psychology.” That statement is one of the few occasions on which Marx said something true. Though he wanted to replace capitalism with communism, he at least recognized how thoroughly capitalist production and trade had transformed the world; and he recognized that the transformation revealed the awesome creative power of human beings.
How far the Left has fallen! Having turned environmentalist, they rail against catalogs for wasting paper and polluting landfills. On the fringes, leftists have taken aim at production itself—and at consumption as its spur. Adbusters, for example, is once again promoting the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the shopping season, as Buy Nothing Day.
We want to see the consumer capitalist machine come to a halt. We want you to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of [sic] your computer for the day. We’re calling for a Ramadan-like fast. From sunrise to sunset we’ll abstain en masse—not only from holiday shopping, but from all the temptations of our five-planet lifestyles.
I hope that everyone who shares that anti-human attitude will take Adbusters’ advice, especially the part about logging off their computers. A day of silence from them would be welcome.
But those of us who subscribe to the “philosophy for living on Earth” understand that consumption is the reward of production and a necessity for life.
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses; and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society.
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