04 March 2011


Since the collapse of the colonialist/mercantilist era, all the great economic -isms have been centered on how national economies can increase and maintain their fortunes. The hows were always predicated on the whys: we created and maintained wealth in a capitalist economy through free-market mechanisms because we believed that the wealth of the individual was an extension of the freedom of the individual; or we created and maintained a command-and-control economy through centralized planning because we believed that the wealth of the society was an extension of the responsibilities of the individual towards the society.

Spoiler alert! Looks like capitalism is more or less in the lead. We are still arguing about degrees, but there is now no major debate, even in 'communist' countries*, about the suitability of the free-market capitalist model. So for the sake of argument, let's call it settled.

So the -isms of the 21st century must turn on very different questions. It is no longer a question of how we gain our wealth, but how we spend it and how we build the legacies we endow with our wealth. And make no mistake: it is a huge amount of wealth, despite the setbacks of recent years. Compared to any other time in history, people in developed countries are better off than ever before. Your average lower-middle class American enjoys better food, shelter and technology than any medieval emperor could even imagine.

If you are a pure free-market capitalist, the answer to how to spend this wealth is very simple: have few to no taxes and let people spend their money freely, with little to no obligation towards society. If you are of that mindset, you may as well stop reading right now. You won't like a single word of what I have to say.

Now that the pure free-marketeers have exited stage right and in a huff, let's discuss some alternative models. The very idea that there are alternative models seems to scare many people. As soon as one says, "I have an alternative to free-market capitalism", our 20th-century minds automatically react negatively, working on the assumption that one must mean some variant of socialism. But remember that we have moved past that conversation entirely. Again, this isn't about how we accumulate wealth. This is an entirely new conversation not about how we get it, but how we spend it.

At this point, most people might say that how we spend it is in fact a function of how we got it: if free-markets capitalism worked for getting the wealth, must we not simply spend it on the same principle, as free-wheeling consumers? My answer is simple: spending it how ever we like isn't making us happy as a society and is perpetuating a culture of debt and emptiness, and an overall sense that we have no purpose as a community. The easy part about positing this belief is that I do not need to provide proof of it: I think that any Western citizen reading this will instantly connect with and feel exactly what I mean here, which is itself all the proof I require. If I am wrong, please write and tell me how our society provides a sense of community and direction, of purpose and legacy, of pride of place in history, of patrimony we happily pass along to the next generation. I look forward to hearing it! I do not expect my inbox to overflow.

So what can we do to provide a fulfilling outlet that will make all the hard work and hard-won wealth seem worth the effort? My proposal is summed up with a simple acronym: BEST. Building, Exploration, Science and Teaching. BEST-ism - for what is a belief worth if it is not instantly converted to an -ism? - is a reaction and alternative to the simple consumerism that we all thought was the only possible product of capitalism. It's my attempt to say that we don't have to reject capitalism in order to reject many of its ills, because those ills are not necessary outcomes of the system, but are instead unnecessary outcomes of what we do with the wealth created by that system.

I'd like to explore the details of BEST in future postings, but for now will close with a counter-point to the single most obvious objection to the idea. The clever free-marketeer will say, "But without that reviled consumerism, there would be no wealth or capitalism upon which to base these fine pursuits." I reject that argument for the very simple reason that it is factually inaccurate: contrary to popular opinion in the US, money spent on public works, education and exploration, does not simply disappear into thin air; quite the contrary: that money fuels growth and jobs in ways that often surpass those of the private sector, not least of all because such efforts strongly engage the private sector.


*How ironic that one of the few remaining communist countries, China, is in fact the most capitalist of all.

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