What can your smartphone teach you about gratitude? A great deal.
Not many years ago, I despised the idea of a cell phone. I value my autonomy, which to my mind includes the ability to remain deliberately unavailable. The notion of carrying around a phone in my pocket sounded a lot like putting a leash around my neck.
The issue was forced one Christmas when my in-laws purchased phones for my wife and me, even paying the subsequent bill for a year. Later came the advent of smartphones. I stood unimpressed. Phones make calls. They don’t need to sing and dance. Nevertheless, a new device caught my wife’s eye during an opportunity to upgrade our cellular contract. The price seemed reasonable and I reluctantly traded up.
It was my exploration of that device which prompted a dramatic change in my attitude toward mobile technology. As I pilfered apps and discovered capabilities, I quickly realized that this tiny gadget was becoming the most used and essential tool in my navigation of life. It came to serve as my administrative assistant, my calendar, my GPS, my library, and my gateway to news, information, and entertainment. It grew into an extension of my civilized being. Like my wallet or keys, it stays with me at all times and remains jealously guarded.
No longer pulled reluctantly into the future, I recently became the puller, convincing my wife that it was time to switch providers and upgrade to the Samsung Galaxy S III. Our old phones barely qualified as “smart” and were woefully inadequate to fulfill our new demands.
Consider that transformation in attitude. How could I go from not knowing I had a need to eagerly fulfilling it? Behold the magic of the market!
The critic of consumer culture might suggest that I was right to perceive no need for something like a smartphone. After all, people got by fine without them for millennia, and much of the world still does. Then again, people got by without electricity and automobiles too. If you regard the function of the market as meeting only known demand and current needs, then it becomes easy to dismiss an innovation like the smartphone as somehow decadent.
However, the magic of the market is that it does not stop at known demand or current needs. It anticipates demand for products which do not yet exist. Specifically, individuals apply their minds to dream up new ways to deliver value. Strangely, more individuals seem to dream up new products and methods when they are politically free with their rights protected. Something called profit motive, they say.
“Profit” is a dirty word in our modern discourse, reviled as a necessary evil at best and sure evidence of corruption otherwise. Mission statements flee from the word, describing all manner of corporate penance in restitution for making money. Consider the mission statement of Starbucks:
to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
Nothing in there about making money, it turns out. Of course, if they fail to remain profitable, their mission to inspire will soon end.
That’s not to suggest that a coffee company cannot “inspire and nurture the human spirit.” To the extent Starbucks customers find such inspiration in a cappuccino, they are willing to part with some of their hard-earned money in trade. While some may describe the prices which coffeehouses charge as theft, in truth nobody holds a gun to anyone’s head.
Why then the penance? Why the need to justify profit-making? Why must it be cloaked in missions to inspire the human spirit or foster sustainability or enrich the community? Aren’t the companies (and, more fundamentally, the individuals) who provide us values like smartphones and premium coffee earning the profit they make? Aren’t they providing us with something we’d rather have than the money we exchange for it? Why else would we agree to the trade?
Pondering such questions takes us beyond simply tolerating profit to fostering gratitude for the products in our lives. The feeling is one we intrinsically express every time we shake hands and say “thank you” upon completing a transaction. What are we thanking each other for? If one party is stealing from or exploiting the other, is thanks the proper expression? Of course not. The reason thanks is given is because both parties believe they have come away better off than they were before. The magic of the market is, they are both right!
Not only is gratitude an appropriate response to trade, it is justly owed. Yet our culture has devolved to the point where producers of value are derided rather than thanked. PJTV’s Bill Whittle expertly demonstrated the absurdity of this circumstance while speaking at last year’s Restoration Weekend.
Imagining himself in the role of Mitt Romney, answering how a man worth $250 million can possibly relate to the American people, Whittle made a case for gratitude:
The reason that I have two-hundred and fifty million dollars in my bank account is because I and my associates have [produced] approximately five billion dollars of wealth for this society. Five-thousand-million dollars is about the number we’ve generated, which means that the two-hundred and fifty million dollars that I’ve kept is but a sliver of the total amount of wealth that we’ve generated for everybody, people all across this country. Thousands, if not tens [of thousands], if not hundreds of thousands of people have gotten paychecks as a result of the work that we do. We haven’t just given them handouts. I pay taxes so people can have handouts. We have paid salaries, and that’s peoples car payments and it’s their children’s college tuition and its mortgage payments. All of this is generated by the work that we do, of which I have kept a tiny sliver, which is 250 million dollars.
Put another way, it is not possible to become rich through consensual trade without making other people’s lives better. It is therefore appropriate to not only tolerate the wealthy, but thank them for their contribution to society.
This observation led the editor of The Objective Standard to encourage a new perspective for Thanksgiving:
Thank you profit-seeking businessmen who produce and sell everything from groceries to computers to automobiles to electricity. Your work—although often condemned—is in fact supremely noble and heroic.
Thank you scientists and engineers who discover and harness the elements and laws of nature, thus making possible the countless processes and goods—from air conditioning to chemotherapy to hydraulic fracturing to fighter jets—that enable us to live and flourish.
Were we to embrace such a spirit of gratitude, our discourse and policy would take a dramatic turn toward the productive. Author and talk radio host Dennis Prager rightly regards gratitude as the most desirable attribute in a human being. Grateful people are good people who treat each other warmly. Ingratitude, a sense of entitlement and victimhood, is the common denominator of the criminal.
So I am reminded when I wield my coveted Samsung Galaxy S III. The value it adds to my life is not of my creation, but available for a reasonable price. For that I am grateful and primed for the next unforeseen innovation which will further inspire the human spirit.
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