24 November 2005

Buy something tomorrow

Tomorrow is apparently International Buy Nothing Day. This is a ill-conceived attempt to make people in wealthier countries feel guilty about their consumption, based largely on the theory that everything that exists on earth is part of a zero-sum game, whereby what you consume is a loss to someone else, rather than a traded value for value. It is on the premise that the way forward is to consume less and trade less, which is completely wrong.

Now if it was a way to encourage people to save and invest for themselves, rather than use credit, there might be some value in that - but it isn't.

The Green Party is unsurprisingly promoting this. Unfortunately there are plenty of places in the world where the idea of buying nothing is just a daily fact of life, and it is not because of too much capitalism, in fact, quite the opposite. Chad, Burma, North Korea and Cuba come to mind.

You are far more likely to make the world a better place by buying something (with your own money mind you) that you really want -regardless of where it comes from - because you are doing something very simple, trading value for value. Buying isn't a one way process - you only buy because the money in your hand is worth less to you (as it is, or for other goods or services) in your hand than the good or service you are purchasing. After buying you (should) have more value than before you bought - similarly the merchant regards your money as having a higher value than holding onto the good or performing the service. Both of you receive "profit" from this. This is capitalism - and it is moral.

You see money is the root of much that is good - it is a means of exchange that enables people to translate what their minds and their labour create into something they want. Trading has been responsible for the enormous increase in wealth and standards of living worldwide in the last couple of centuries, and the ones who have missed out have been those who haven't traded. North and South Korea, West and East Germany are stark contrasts that should be obvious. One traded and has property rights, the other didn't - and one is poorer, less safe and more polluted than the other. Taiwan and China before it opened up, are the same. How many failed countries need to exist before people learn?

With a higher standard of living people demand cleaner air and water, and better standards of safety - because they can afford to. Higher standards of living come with property rights and with property rights people protect their property from destruction through pollution. People can also afford to own and protect land as parks, reserves and other places of natural beauty because they are not subsisting for food and shelter.

This article from the New Individualist argues that the sustainable development agenda is a major attack on individual liberty and is an excuse for destroying property rights.

Buying nothing means you have some money in your pocket - and someone else doesn't. Free trade is beneficial to all. Take this example:

Lets say that Vietnamese companies can produce shoes for $1 a pair whereas NZ companies can only produce them for $20 a pair. Under free trade, New Zealanders will buy their shoes from Vietnam. This benefits people in both countries. Vietnamese will have more money to buy food, clothing and shelter. New Zealanders will spend less on shoes and have more money to buy CDs, books and furniture, and the investment capital formerly spent on shoeswill be put to more productive uses, such as new technology or creative industries or pharmaceuticals. Multiply this by millions of products and hundreds of countries and over time the benefits run into the trillions of dollars.

These benefits already have - imagine the wealth of humanity had the whole world been consumed by the anti-capitalism of Nazi Germany or the USSR.

So go out and buy something -celebrate capitalism.

The website promoting this buy nothing doggerall is full of nonsense:

1. “at a global level its been said that to satisfy consumption demands of everyone, if they were to consume like the affluent West, we'd need 3 more planets worth of resources.” Well “it has been said” is a good way of saying something without knowing a damned thing about it. “It has been said” that environmentalists routinely engage in coprophagia – see, just as valid a quote! Regardless of the source, this is absolute nonsense, as when a resource becomes scarce, the price goes up and either more can be extracted economically, or alternatives are found (including recycling).

2. “A 1998 UNDP report points out that one child in a developed country will consume, waste and pollute the equivalent of more than 50 children in a developing country.” Well one UN employee probably consumes more than 3x the average person in a developed country, as hypocrisy runs deep in one of the most inept and morally bankrupt organisations on earth. However the real point here is that the child in the developed country enjoys a good standard of living – is the solution to halve the standard of living of the developed country child to boost the others? Should the state funded welfare system be extended to be global (if not, why not on the basis of this philosophy) and are you all prepared to pay enormous taxes for that?

3. “So from the prospect of being fair - acknowledging that less developed countries have the right to the same standards of living as the West - our consumption is unsustainable.” This is a non-sequitur. Why is our consumption unsustainable? Saying it doesn’t make it so. Besides, nobody has a right to a certain standard of living, how is this right to be delivered? How do you force people to give others a standard of living. People have standards of living and have the right to pursue improved standards of living, but there is no right to a particular result regardless of your circumstances.

4. How do you lead a fulfilling life? Only you can answer that, finally.” WOW, something libertarian in it. The choice is ours – so it wont be forced on us, an enormous relief (and some hope)!

5. “Buy Nothing Day is also concerned with other issues related to consumption and consumerism - the use of sweatshops and prison labour to produce more and more of the goods we buy (what does that mean for our own jobs, and the lives of those who now have those jobs, but often at unlivable wages?);.”

Hold on. People queue up to get sweatshop jobs because earning a living wage in countries with such sweatshops is more liberating than working in subsistence agriculture when a bad season can mean you starve. They are not unlivable wages in the countries these people live in, quite the opposite. There is no evidence given that sweatshops and prison labour produce “more and more of the good we buy”, as it is just as likely that production is increasingly automated. However, what does “the inability of our current political system to measure social progress and relate that to economic progress; support of locally made and ethically based products and investments” mean? Presumably it means paying well above the market value for goods and services. Which is fine if you get value from that, but if you’d rather spend the money on buying your kids another pair of shoes, then it probably is better than you do that.

6. “The effects of over-consumption on the environment (such as toxic pollution and climate change) are widely known. These mean we need to reduce consumption, especially in many Western countries like New Zealand that are consuming much more than their fair share of resources.” Toxic pollution exists as a tragedy of the commons, and should be controlled by introducing private property rights to those commons. Besides, in the quest for efficiency many processes are becoming cleaner and less polluting – the almost non-existent growth in petrol tax revenue (except for increases in the tax) despite growth in traffic is due to the improved fuel efficiency of new cars.

What are a “fair share of resources”? Who decides this? The resources you are entitled to are those you own or legally acquire through purchase, gift or inheritance – your greatest resource is your brain. Are you to be forced to give up some of this for someone you don’t know? Who will enforce this? Funnily enough it would appear the countries with the greatest “share of resources” (the advocates of this like the word share, as if there was some higher power who dished out the shares rather than the wealth being created) actually created it.

The USA is the wealthiest country on earth because the people who live there used their minds to apply to the natural and human resources they acquired. It is capitalism – people traded value for value, whether it be labour, goods or services, and they discovered how they could apply their minds to the world around them. Bauxite was not a resource a few centuries ago, because nobody knew how to smelt it into aluminium, now it is valued because aluminium can be used for all sorts of construction (and is often recycled – the aircraft industry recycles virtually all plane fuselages).

7. “Every product we buy has an effect on the environment - extraction and processing of raw materials, manufacture of products and dumping products at the end of their lives causes pollution, creates toxic waste, wastes energy and destroys precious wildlife habitats..”

Well yes it does have an effect, but most of the time the effect is virtually nil. Many products decompose, and most pollution dilutes until it is unnoticeable. Paper products are almost always made from plantation pine forests that are constantly renewed, glass is virtually infinite (think the planet will run out of sand do you?) You think not? Well every day you urinate ammonia and urea – and breathe out carbon dioxide and produce methane, so feel guilty. Don’t have children, that will do more to reduce consumption than anything you try to do.

The more concerning notion is that “Transporting products internationally is often extremely wasteful of fuels, if the product can also be produced nationally”

What nonsense! What is so important about national boundaries that it is ok to ship something from Invercargill to Auckland, but not from Sydney? Are people in Luxembourg not to buy chocolate from Belgium? More importantly, why should anyone put up with goods made locally that are poorer quality and more expensive? The Trabant car was east Germany’s great experiment at that- expensive, poor quality and environmentally disastrous. Argentina went for import substitution in the 1940s and by the 1970s had gone from being up with the rich countries to being with the third world – import substitution makes people poorer.

That is not to mean that competitive import substitution is bad, it isn’t – just that the state shouldn’t tax people for importing or regulate it.

So all in all, international buy nothing day is based on a large number of unsubstantiated assertions. Besides, I bet nobody who adheres to it will switch off their electricity, gas, water, phone or not catch the bus or drive anywhere. If you are that concerned about your consumption, then stop the lot – don’t look at blogs, because you are helping empty a dam or burn fossil fuels. Buying nothing for the sake of it does not make you think – it means you are buying into a simplistic jingoism that does nothing to make a real difference to toxic pollution or poverty.


Steve Brandon said...

I've been anti-celebrating "Buy Nothing Day", or, as I like to call it, "Buy Something Nice for Yourself and Piss Off a Communist Day", for the past several years.

You can read accounts of the past two "Buy Something Nice for Yourself and Piss Off a Communist Day" shopping trips written in mind-numbingly excruciating detail here and here. Not that I'm pretending anything particularly interesting happened; the gist is essentially, "I went somewhere, bought something, went home."

Libertyscott said...

Great stuff - and the fact is that several billion people did the same, which is far more important than a few thousand misguided lefties