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Capitalism, Robert Hessen
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That these amenities had become available to most people did not cause capitalism’s critics to recant, or even to relent. Instead, they ingeniously reversed themselves. Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse proclaimed that the real evil of capitalism is prosperity, because it seduces workers away from their historic mission—the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism—by supplying them with cars and household appliances, which he called “tools of enslavement.”1 Some critics reject capitalism by extolling “the simple life” and labeling prosperity mindless materialism. In the 1950s, critics such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Vance Packard attacked the legitimacy of consumer demand, asserting that if goods had to be advertised in order to sell, they could not be serving any authentic human needs.2 They charged that consumers are brainwashed by Madison Avenue and crave whatever the giant corporations choose to produce and advertise, and complained that the “public sector” is starved while frivolous private desires are being satisfied. And having seen that capitalism reduced poverty instead of intensifying it, critics such as Gar Alperovitz and Michael Harrington proclaimed equality the highest moral value, calling for higher taxes on incomes and inheritances to massively redistribute wealth, not only nationally but also internationally.3


Capitalism is not a cure for every defect in human affairs or for eradicating all inequalities, but who ever said it was? It holds out the promise of what Adam Smith called “universal opulence.” Those who demand more are likely to be using higher expectations as a weapon of criticism. For example, British economist Richard Layard recently attracted headlines and airtime with a startling revelation: money cannot buy happiness (a cliché of song lyrics and church sermons).4 He laments that economic individualism fails to ensure the emotional satisfactions that are essential to life, including family ties, financial security, meaningful work, friendship, and good health. Instead, a capitalist society supplies new gadgets, appliances, and luxuries that arouse envy in those who cannot afford them and that inspire a ceaseless obsession with securing more among those who already own too much. Layard’s long-range solutions include a revival of religion to topple the secularism that capitalism fosters, altruism to obliterate selfishness, and communitarianism to supercede individualism. He stresses the need, near-term, for robust governmental efforts to promote happiness instead of the minimalist night-watchman state that libertarian defenders of capitalism favor. He argues that low taxes are harmful to the poor because they give government inadequate revenue to provide essential services to the poor. Higher taxes really would not harm the well-to-do, he says, because money and material possessions are subject to diminishing marginal utility. If such claims have a familiar ring, it is because Galbraith made the same points fifty years ago.