So, we are halfway through the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) in Singapore, marked by the opulent merchandise displayed at every store front. Discounts plastered across windows, promo codes sent to every email address in Singapore (with people occasional sliding into the DMS as well) We are looking to make a killing for ourselves by getting the best deals for ourselves with the slashed prices and bundle packages.
So what would Adam Smith, Captain Capitalism and the father of modern day economics say about the consumerist society we live in today?
Given that he said,
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
He clearly saw the virtues of a free economy, where the “invisible hand” of the market determines demand and supply of the goods we consume. It is our selfishness and greed that unwittingly benefits the well-being of others. This gives us the moral justification and impetus to be selfish and enjoy the fruits of capitalism.
Well, it’s probably safe to assume that Smith would be proud to see that the world has adopted his economic theory of wealth, making communism obsolete.
Yet, we glean an insight that is seemingly contradictory to this position. In his book from 1759(yes, this came before The Wealth of Nations), the Theory of Moral Sentiment where he states,
“How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden. “
First off, there is nothing inherently wrong with the shiny gadgets that we own so you can keep your iPhones, Macbooks, Xboxes (and…. Fidget spinners). But notice the juxtaposition he highlights between the diction of “ruin” and “trinkets of frivolous utility”.
He is clearly against how people exhaust their efforts and finances just to get their hands on a few playthings. This is definitely an accurate commentary on the current wave of materialism engulfing the senses of our societies.
For example, just look at how every time Apple drops a new phone model, throngs of people mob their stores, itching to splurge their hard-earned cash on these “trinkets of frivolous utility”
No, I am not saying that the iPhone is bad and should be discarded but what I am saying it embodies how shiny gadgets now hold a disproportionate importance in our lives. They have somehow eclipsed the purposes and people deserving our quality time and attention. (just think about how you spend countless hours on Instagram, scrolling on the explore page instead of writing your essay or talking to your friends at the dinner table.)
Furthermore, this disproportionate importance it wields over our lives has shaped us to become people who “contrive new pockets” just to hold more stuff. (I am really guilty of that).
Contrive: do something foolish or bring about (an object or a situation) by the deliberate use of skill and artifice.
Imagine a pair of jeans with 1000 pockets, sounds stupid right? But that is the truth for our lives, isn’t it? We want and buy more, as a result, we are constantly finding new methods to store more stuff. We might not have 1000 pockets in our pockets, but we see boxes stacked on boxes in our homes and we even pay money to people to store things. This materialistic cycle becomes an infinite game where it is never enough for us.
However, Smith’s worst fear (and mine) is that materialism becomes the central thesis of our pursuits and consequently seeps into our mindset towards work. Our careers, professions is predicated on turning us into people who walk around, loaded with a multitude of baubles in weight. We not only derive satisfaction from our purchases, it has morphed into our purpose.
When our careers/professions are aimed at the accumulation of wealth and amassing the shiniest toys in the market, the weight is not worth its value. Smith says the value of this is not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box. As a result, we become fatigued and disillusioned because as Smith says“the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden. “
(A Jew-box known as the tefillin is a small black leather box for Jews to carry parchments of Torah with them to remind them of how God brought the Jews out of Egypt)
The Tefillin’s function is to keep the parchment safe just like how our modern gadgets have their purposes catered to us as well. (i.e our smartphones have the purpose of communication, entertainment etc). Yet, the true value lies in the holy scripture the Tefillin contains. Similarly, our life has to be viewed through such a perspective. We cannot be distracted with the tools at hand, instead, we must focus on the internal motivations dictating how we utilise these tools. We should be encouraged to chase a purpose, that is worthy of our burden, energies and even exhaustion.
As Smith said,
The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented.
Instead of ogling at the different department stores and shophouses, let us detach ourselves and take a moment to undertake the “slightest observation” and focus on what (our purposes, goals, friends and family) truly matters.