While in Los Angeles for a recent vacation trip, I had the pleasure of walking (!) around the streets of West L.A.
I love the feel of a bustling shopping district. I know it’s fashionable to decry the shallowness and materialism of American consumer culture. On the other hand, I prefer a more positive “glass half full” perspective. I love that a modern market economy makes such a wide variety of goods and services so easily available to ordinary people for such relatively little money.
For less than the price of an hour of labor, an average person in California can enjoy a filling lunch of authentic cuisine from India or Thailand. This would have been impossible to all but the richest of Americans 200 years ago.
Through most of human history, the average person had to spend hours each day in backbreaking farm labor to grow barely enough to feed themselves and their families. Today, our market economy creates such enormous surpluses that people can become artists and scientists and writers and computer programmers and baristas and specialty chefs, etc.
Of course, the economic freedom of a market economy puts the onus on individuals to figure out for themselves what careers they will find most personally and professionally fulfilling. But this is analogous to how the social freedom created by eliminating old school “arranged marriages” in traditional societies places the onus on individuals to figure out what sort of romantic partners they actually want.
Freedom doesn’t automatically guarantee success for any given person. But it does give people an opportunity — provided they are willing to think and plan for their own happiness. Such freedom can be daunting — but it’s far better than having no real choices at all.
It’s true that markets and material goods cannot provide meaning to someone with an empty spiritual life. But a market economy can give people their best chance of seeking and finding their own life purpose and meaning.
And to the extent that modern free-market capitalism has been allowed to function, it has lifted millions of people from poverty who in centuries past would have remained stuck in the rural or urban underclasses. Had I been born 200 years ago, I’d probably be a poor peasant picking rice somewhere in Taiwan, rather than enjoying a fulfilling career as an advanced professional here in the United States.
So the next time you’re sipping on a latte at your neighborhood coffee shop, browsing for a new smart phone at the local Apple Store, or enjoying the aroma coming from the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at the local Indian restaurant, savor the experience. And savor the market economy that makes it all possible.