What Good Is Cheaper Stuff If It Comes At The Expense Of Community?

What Good Is Cheaper Stuff If It Comes At The Expense Of Community?

Should we be so eager to destroy communities for Chinese counterfeits and cheap, often disposable, consumer goods? Perhaps a little less efficiency in capital allocation would not be so terrible, after all.
Nathanael Blake
By

The finest instruments I have ever played were made by Fodera Guitars in Brooklyn. Their basses are masterpieces that make bass players — usually stolid men who stand in the back — lyrical.

These instruments are also expensive; not orchestral expensive, where upright basses can cost more than a luxury car, but handmade in New York City ain’t cheap. Naturally, the sneaky Chinese are counterfeiting them.

The “sneaky” comes courtesy of National Review’s Kevin Williamson, who likes to include it and similar adjectives when inventing dialogue for those who complain about Chinese business practices (e.g., “conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs”), thereby suggesting that those he scolds for a lack of competitive capitalist ardor are also a bit xenophobic. But describe them however you want, the Chinese, encouraged and directed by a totalitarian government, are indeed stealing from us.

Williamson Would Sacrifice Community for Efficiency

Counterfeiting boutique basses is a minor example, as those looking to buy high-end instruments probably won’t be fooled by a shoddy imitation, and those knowingly buying a counterfeit — oh, the strange vanity of wanting to appear to have an expensive instrument — are unlikely ever to shell out the cash for the real thing. But as the Wall Street Journal’s reporting about Chinese sellers on Amazon documents, many Americans have watched Chinese rip-offs and counterfeits damage and even destroy their businesses.

For instance, “Chinese counterfeits drove Kevin Williams, a Utah seller of water-powered cleaning brushes on Amazon, to lay off six employees this year — most of his U.S. staff.” Kevin Williamson, the writer, may sneer at what has happened to Kevin Williams, the entrepreneur, but the Chinese government and the businesses it oversees really are wily and ruthless in their efforts to subvert, steal from, and sabotage American companies.

Recent economic debates on the right have suffered from this sort of rhetorical misdirection, as well as a propensity toward hyperbole, which Williamson exemplified in describing his foes as the “new right-wing anti-capitalists.” By this he seems to mean those rediscovering or reemphasizing the views of conservatives like Russell Kirk, who was suspicious of big business and unrestrained markets, or the reasoning of the old “two cheers for capitalism” neoconservatives. “Anti-capitalists” apparently means any capitalists who are not quite as laissez-faire as Williamson is. Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Williamson was critiquing, is not a Bolshevik yearning to massacre the bourgeoisie.

As Williamson points out, government intervention in the economy is not without its dangers. But unrestrained capitalism has its own problems, chief among them the propensity to undermine its own cultural foundations. Consider Williamson’s proclamation that “Americans as a whole are much better off when markets are allowed to allocate resources efficiently, but there is a vast and politically significant archipelago of communities that would prefer that certain inefficiencies be preserved, because their livings are tied to those inefficiencies and their communities have been built atop them.”

At least this is a straightforward admission that the goal of maximizing economic efficiency necessitates destroying communities. However, the declaration that this local devastation is always for the best presumes that a man’s wealth and well-being exist in his abundance of possessions and that enabling economic efficiency is a preeminent end of government.

But perhaps we are better off with less efficiency and more diversity in local economies, with more local control and more human-scale enterprises. Perhaps some inefficiency is preferable to the wholesale economic destruction of communities.

Community Is Not a Consumer Good

There are many goods in life, and not all of them are served by maximizing the ability of markets to allocate resources efficiently. The efficient Williamson might reply that the point of economic liberty is to allow people the freedom to do what they want. Some will buy a superb bass guitar, a fine suit, or even a gold toilet. Others will make a donation to a church, sponsor the arts, or buy a meal for friends.

Free markets do not necessitate soulless hedonistic materialism; they simply respond to what people want. People who want love, friendship, and beauty rather than maximal material acquisition and physical pleasure are free to pursue them. It is not capitalism’s fault if too few do so.

This overlooks the fact that some goods are only achievable in common and in community. Indeed, community in the full sense as a form of friendship is a good that cannot be attained through individual preference. Community is not a consumer good to be purchased. But the efficient flow of capital for maximum profit does not account for, and frequently harms, communities and the goods they instantiate, enable, and cultivate.

The economic instability of capitalism’s “creative destruction” damages goods for which the market cannot compensate. A moment’s decision in New York or San Francisco can destroy generations of relationships in the heartland.

Ironically, this throws grit into the gears of the market machine. Williamson points out that many industries are struggling to find good workers. True enough, but such workers are people, not robots. Good workers cannot be ordered up on demand, but are grown and cultured in families and communities that do not reduce them to their future economic output.

People Need Stability

Williamson writes that employment depends on investments, which need “good government and a stable, predictable policy environment.” He is correct that capital wants stability. So do people. Stability and predictability are important for getting married, raising children, and living in community. Family life requires the coherence of continuity and the community it enables. But Williamson favors an economic system that stresses families and hollows out communities, and then complains when they produce deracinated people unfit to work and unable to hold down a steady job.

The efficient allocation and reallocation of capital is in tension with creating and sustaining stable, nurturing families and communities. Conservatives recognize this; we know that the goods of economic liberty must be balanced against the goods of communal and family stability as we try to steer between stagnation and disintegration.

For workers, an unsettled, nomadic life following the efficient allocation of capital impedes love, friendship, and communion with others. We were not created for economic efficiency. We are not defined by our productivity but by our relationships. An economic and political order that does not recognize this is unjust.

Thus, conservatives know we are not obviously better off destroying those inefficient communities Williamson disdains. I am not really better off if my grocery bill is a few bucks less but my brother is unemployed.

The maximal pursuit of cheaper consumer goods loses its luster when it comes with the cost of establishing a permanently dependent underclass, which is one result of destroying inefficient communities. In addition, an underclass is an expensive, self-perpetuating problem. The fiscal costs don’t appear on the balance sheets of those making a profit off destroying inefficient communities, but the rest of us bear them, as we bear the costs in human wreckage.

Should we be so eager to destroy communities for Chinese counterfeits and cheap, often disposable, consumer goods? Perhaps a little less efficiency in capital allocation would not be so terrible, after all.

Nathanael Blake is a Senior Contributor at The Federalist. He has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.

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