You’re Not an Island

You’re not an island, right? But you think you are. Take world poverty. You probably think you’re innocently minding your own business over here — while various nefarious characters over there are the ones robbing the destitute. Nope. They couldn’t do it without you.

To get a handle on that, we need to look at the big picture — in it’s simple basics. Poverty in its most destitute form is a matter of siphoning off resources from people who are in no position to resist. But it’s more than just exploiting super-cheap resources and super-cheap labour in destitute places.

In its more predatory form, and more common form, it works as follows. Go where people have always been self-sufficient, meeting their own needs just fine for generations — grab their land by bribing dictators or tribal leaders — push the people out of their homes and their land and herd them into sweatshops to work for next to nothing — or just discard them entirely and let other people set up refugee camps for them — buy guns for the dictators to keep the population docile — wag a finger in disapproval when atrocities result — and go laughing all the way to the bank.

“But wait a minute,” — you ask — “what does that have to do with me? I’m not involved in all that.” Well, sorry, but yes you are. They only do it because you’re going to pay them to do it. You’re a willing participant in this end of their operation. You’re part and parcel of the great consumer circus. They exploit the most vulnerable people in obscure parts of the world — to the point of death if need be — so that they can get obscenely wealthy feeding the consumer frenzy in this part of the world. And you’re happy to participate in that feeding frenzy, because look at all the goodies it gives you.

But you’re not an evil person. Why do you let yourself be complicit in all that? There are two reasons:

First. The consumer lifestyle is addictive as hell — and an all-powerful market industry has perfected all the psychological hooks to keep you plunging deeper and deeper into the pit. Smartphones provide my favourite example. Some would argue that cocaine is less addictive than an iPad. Never having tried the former, I can’t be sure. But how many people do you know who aren’t hopelessly addicted to their devices? How many people don’t take their smartphones to the toilet with them? How many young people do you know who are not totally in thrall to their electronic companions? Tell them that it takes child labour in Africa to produce the rare minerals in their phones — and they’ll mostly shrug and go on with their games. Addiction is addiction.

Once into a lifestyle, there’s no easy way out. It becomes one’s normal life, and stepping out of it appears traumatic — so nobody steps out of it. Besides, where would they go? What else have they learned to do, or still remember? But just to make sure they stay loyal forever, the advertising industry jumps in to create dreams and fantasies around their exciting lives that will keep them hooked forever. You too. Me too. I’m writing this on an iPad, after all.

Second. You have an excuse. It’s called the Invisible Hand. You may not know it by name, but it’s been drilled into you from day one. It says not to worry, we have competition. Competition keeps everyone in line under that stern master — the market. We just need more competition to keep everybody honest.  So you can do what you want. It’ll work out in the end. That makes so much sense to you because you learned it on your mother’s knee and beyond.

But when you drill down into the Invisible Hand, it doesn’t hold up so well. It was proposed by a respectable Scottish pastor named Adam Smith a few centuries ago. It says that a competitive market will effectively keep everyone disciplined. If any seller overcharges a customer, or takes more than he deserves from someone else in any manner — competitors will rush in and take away all his grateful customers. A competitive market kills off any and all abuse — “like an invisible hand”.

The Invisible Hand. Never underestimate the power of a catchy slogan to turn off peoples’ minds. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Sure, it sometimes works that way, and there are lots of inspiring examples. But more often it backfires. Let me set up a simple little example.

Say there are local shoemakers making shoes for the local people, but they don’t make enough shoes for everyone. Supply falls short so prices go a little high, and shoemakers make a little too much money. Now the government opens the border and lets foreign shoemakers in. More competition. What will happen? Will prices fall? Will incomes fall back to normal?

The economist will say “Yes indeed!” — because the economist assumes that all shoemakers are the same. So of course a few more identical small competitors will push prices down and normalize incomes. A good result. And you say, “Yay competition!”

You have this blind faith that competition will save the day because nobody ever told you that the economist assumes — just assumes — that everyone is the same. But what if they’re not all the same?

What if the new competitor is a big international corporation? It comes in, undercuts prices until the local shoemakers go bankrupt, then hires them to work their big corporate factory for half their previous income — while the monopoly price of shoes skyrockets.

So under certain abstract textbook conditions, competition keeps prices and incomes in line. But under many common conditions, market competition often depresses incomes and raises prices — to the point of condemning many in the world to destitution. The Invisible Hand goes rogue.

Yet you hang onto the myth because it let’s you off the hook. You can live the good life over here, and act as if destitution over there is exaggerated — because the Invisible Hand theory says it’s all good. Enjoy your life, because it’ll all work out in the end. Hence indeed — yes — you have an excuse. That’s often the very purpose of a myth.

So here you are knee-deep in it. You’re indoctrinated into a consumer lifestyle that — at the other end — condemns many to destitution. It’s become your life, your normalcy. Escape would mean changing a lifetime of habits, walking away from an imagination full of dreams — and maybe even defying authority. Do you want to escape? Can you escape?

You want to and you can because that’s not all you are. Like all human beings, you have two sides — a giving side and a taking side. The taking side is drummed into your head daily until you think consumption is your very purpose in life.

But most every parent knows of  the other side, our nurturing side — the side that knows the spirit of love — the side that knows that what makes life meaningful is finding  love in our lives and serving those we love. Even those who are boxed in by materialist ideology still know of the human spirit in their hearts. How much more can those who know the spirit of God know the joys of love and service.

It’s all there — the instinct to love — inside of us, waiting for liberation. Some are already liberated. Others will never be liberated. Many of us are floundering around looking for a way out of meaningless. But you can’t begin to know that kind of liberation until you begin to de-program yourself. And that begins when you want something deeper than just accumulating more crap while others beg for food

And that, in turn, sharpens up when you look at starving children in unfamiliar lands and think — “That’s not what I signed up for. All this time I’ve been buying into something that deeply offends my own moral code.”

Congratulations. You get to this point and — hey — you’re on your way. Still a long way to go. But welcome to the community.

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