08 January 2009

The folly of 'future value'

In Issue 6 (November 08) of Standpoint magazine, the 'Dialogue' section featured a discussion between Samuel Brittan and Edward Hadas on the topic 'Is capitalism morally bankrupt?' Regarding the financial system's questionable viability, Brittan remarked that it was 'when people are acquiring objects... for their resale value that the system gets rather wonky', creating 'asset bubbles'. This tendency for people to buy things for their future value rather than for their present 'use value' manifests itself in actions like purchasing investment homes, not to live in, but in the hope of the building's value appreciating over time for a profitable resale. All sorts of financial speculation is essentially future-oriented rather than focused on the present pleasures to be had from products and assets.

Investments, speculation, financial forecasts; these spheres of economic activity emphasize the gaining of greater wealth over the actual enjoyment of products or experiences. The dominant mentality is that of a gambler, rather than an aesthete. No need to recommend the ascetic life as the moral ideal. There's nothing reprehensible in wanting and appreciating things. And it is in acquiring things that money shows its utility. But to chase more of it at the expense of delighting in the very stuff that it has delivered is a sad and vulgar exercise.

Brittan has placed a finger on one contributor to the global financial crisis. The complex economics that underpins his observations escapes me, but I agree with Richard Todd, who in his book The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity, declared that 'We need to be better materialists.' I interpret Todd's opinion as a call for us to reassess our material priorities, for we all have material priorities, even the most austere world-renouncers amongst us (it's only a matter of degree). Better that we love and respect things for their 'use value' now, and not merely for their economic value later.


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