Capitalism — When People Sell Things I Don’t Like

With the garden currently shooting up, I’ve found myself again disposed to read gardening and food related books. I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma last week, and aside from a few gripes in regards to Michael Pollan’s understanding of economics, I enjoyed it quite a bit. On the last run by the library, I picked up a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The idea of moving out onto acreage and growing much of one’s own food is something that I find interesting. I enjoy gardening, I enjoy cooking gourmet food, and I think there’s a cultural and psychological value to remaining in touch with the way that humans have gained food for themselves in past centuries.

However, Kingsolver is far more passionate (and less balanced) in her jeremiads against “industrial food” than Pollan, and more prone to denunciations of what “capitalism” has done to our food culture. Indeed, so much so as to crystallize for me a trend among those who denounce “capitalism” and its impact on Western Culture. Kingsolver had just reached the crescendo of a complaint in regards to large seed companies peddling hybrids and genetically modified strains, when she turned to the subject of heirloom vegetable varieties, and her joy at paging through lengthy seed catalogs full of heirloom seeds.

…Heirloom seeds are of little interest to capitalism if they can’t be patented or owned. They have, however, earned a cult following among people who grow or buy and eat them. Gardeners collect them like family jewels, and Whole Foods Market can’t refrain from poetry in its advertisement of heirlooms….

So you see, when large agribusiness firms sell farmers seeds for field corn which are genetically modified to repel pests,
that’s capitalism. But when catalog and internet businesses build a thriving niche selling heirloom vegetable seeds, and Whole Foods ad men wax poetical over $7/lb tomatoes, that’s… Well, it certainly can’t be capitalism, can it? Not if it’s good.

In some circles, “capitalism” becomes such a scare-word that people forget what it means. Free markets and private ownership allow the satisfaction of a variety of wants: both mainstream farmers’ desire for crops which are bug resistant, and organic gardeners’ desire for true-breeding, non-hybrid varietals with colorful lineages; both Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.

Indeed, what doesn’t allow for this kind of preference driven diversity is a centralized top-down system. For all that slow-food and local-food advocates rail against the “industrial agricultural complex”, there’s in fact plenty of room for buying local food from quirky, sustainable-practice farmers in our current “capitalist” system. Their real nightmare would be not capitalism, but the sort of central planning which briefly had its day in this country under FDR’s New Deal, when the Schechter Brothers served jail time for the horrific sins of following strict Kosher guidelines, allowing customers to pick which poultry to buy based on what looked healthy, and giving customers a good price.

A preference driven system such as free market capitalism does leave us to suffer the pangs of seeing people buy things we think they ought not (and the changes in the culture that result therefrom), but whose of us who are in any sense in the cultural minority should hesitate to rail against capitalism, when it is free markets which allow those of us with niche-y tastes to see our needs met as well as those of the mainstream culture.

8 Responses to Capitalism — When People Sell Things I Don’t Like

  1. jdalley says:

    Love free market and capitalism! They are the best!

  2. Joe Hargrave says:

    “In some circles, “capitalism” becomes such a scare-word that people forget what it means.”

    Unlike “socialism” in some other circles, right?


  3. Jay Anderson says:

    Great post, Darwin!

    It is ironic that things like Whole Foods are made possible only because they are one choice among many at the “capitalist” buffet table.

  4. Actually, Joe, I’d agree with you that “socialism” as used in contemporary American discourse has become fairly meaningless. It’s used to mean any sort of centralization at all.

    Complicating this is the fact that many of the European groups calling themselves “socialist” these days are in fact groups endorsing technocratic oligarchy with a large social safety net.

    While on the other side, “capitalism” and even “free markets” are sometimes mis-used to endorse anything that large companies would like — even government protections of large corporations’ market shares.

  5. Blackadder says:

    This reminds me back during the election when the differences between the McCain and Obama tax plans were described as being a choice between socialism and unfettered capitalism, whereas in reality it was about whether the top marginal rate for the federal income tax would be 36% or 39.5%.

  6. Blackadder says:

    I’m currently reading Joseph Heath’s The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture. Heath documents how much so-called anti-consumerism movements are defined in terms of branded goods, both negatively (‘I would never shop at Wal-Mart’) but also positively (e.g. Adbusters selling their own brand of sneakers). Heath’s view is that consumer trends are driven mainly by competitive status seeking, and that the anti-consumerist pose is simply one more strategy for gaining status and distinction through one’s consumer choices.

  7. Sam Rocha says:

    “but whose of us who are in any sense in the cultural minority should hesitate to rail against capitalism, when it is free markets which allow those of us with niche-y tastes to see our needs met as well as those of the mainstream culture.”

    If one would endorse or reject capitalism, socialism, or anything else culturally relevant based on how it allows for our tastes to be met, then, I think the reasoning that would follow would verge on relativistic. The point of having a rigorous discussion on the merits and demerits of the imperfect options we have come up with thus far is that there is a standard of justice that is worth striving for continually, I think.

  8. I would tend to view most political and economic structures as relative rather than absolute goods. Thus, for instance, I see great virtue to representative democracy, but if I lived in a stable and well ruled monarchy I would be against any agitation to overthrow it for a democracy of unknown quality.

    In light of this, I think one should consider the likely results of replacing freedom with a more controlled system. Given that few people consider it worth while to spend extra money for food which is produced “organically” or “sustainably”, I think those who espouse that kind of food would do well not to seek to do away with free markets — since it is free markets which allow them to get what they want. If they somehow got their wish and saw free markets abolished while remaining a small minority, they would see not the imposition of their preferences, but in all likelihood those of the majority.

    In similar form, it is perhaps not coincidental that the Church developed a greater understanding of the advantages of religious freedom when in the space of a few decades the old Catholic monarchies of Europe were replaced by secular regimes hostile to the Church.

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