Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
A little while ago I was driving to Fremantle on Stirling Highway. At one of the traffic lights in Claremont, a young man pulled up beside me, in what was a new Porsche Boxster. The light turned green, he sped off, only for me to catch him at the next set of lights. The same thing occurred at the next two traffic lights.
The Porsche Boxster is an exquisite sports car. It can go from a standing start to 100 kph in five seconds. It has a top speed of 280 kph, and in Perth as of 2012, it sells for around $150,000. In Perth the highway speeds are 60 kph, the speed limit in built-up areas is 50 kph, that around schools, 40 kph, and on the Freeway 110 kph. Built in Stuttgart, the Porsche Boxster comes from a country famed for the Autobahn, a road network, where in many parts, there is no speed limit. As such, having driven on the Autobahn on many occasions, I can vouch for the speeds of those overtaking you, being at the very least well over 200 kph. One only needs to get on You Tube to see individuals, clocked at over 320 kph – and doing this legally on the Autobahn. But Perth is not Stuttgart; and no individual can legally exceed 110 kph in Australia. Even if you did seek to drive into the country and opened the throttle illegally, the roads in the country are nowhere near the quality of those in Germany, and in an automobile that is so low to the ground, the thought of hitting a kangaroo is devastating enough. This being said, why would anyone be willing to purchase an item of such expense that can never be used to even a fraction of its fullest potential? The answer put simply – is because they can.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes once posited: “I think, therefore I am”. What Descartes had encapsulated in a few short words, was the notion that the best that logic can tell us, is that we are only certain of our own existence because our thought process informs us of this certainty. But logic cannot prove that others have the capacity to think, and therefore think and exist as we do. Common sense and trust combined speak to the rational man or woman about accepting the existence of others, as we know the existence of ourselves. Borrowing from Descartes, I wish to posit a new maxim for modern man: “As I purchase and consume – so I am”. What I mean by this is that, as the soul animates the body, so too our patterns of consumption, reveal something about who we are. Our consumption patterns indicate what we value and prioritize. Desiderius Erasmus the famous Dutch humanist indicated this of himself, when he wrote: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Erasmus was a scholar and he was willing to enter into penury to support his love of learning. So let me provide a personal example. Recently while surfing the internet, I came across a website that was selling bicycle tyres; the prices were very good. Do I need new tyres? Absolutely not! But the reputation of these tyres was well known – and moreover, they were white! So here I was sitting in front of a screen, seriously considering purchasing an item that I did not need. The credit card was near me. What stopped me? My wife, who did not know of my desire to purchase the tyres, informed me that my son would like to continue with his tennis lessons. Restricted for disposable funds, I decided that my son’s happiness came before the white tyres. But that is not the end of the matter; I later thought, had I had the disposable income – there is no doubt in my mind, that I would have purchased these tyres. I would have wasted close to one hundred dollars on mere appearance, for the sole reason that in this latter hypothetical case I had the purchasing power to do so.
This predilection to waste money, I believe, does not place me in such a rare category. Let me prove. At the close of 2009, a report revealed the following about the Australian nation: “New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that new homes across Australia are bigger in square metre terms than anywhere else in the world. Commsec chief economist Craig James says the great Australian dream has expanded over the past few decades.”You go back 20 or 30 years ago and the average house was, you know, sort of two or three bedrooms, three bedrooms at most,” he said. “Now it is at least four bedrooms, possibly even and five and it is a lounge, dining room, home entertainment room. Certainly we are putting more and more rooms in our ever-growing houses.” Mr James says the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the average floor area of a new home has hit a record high of 214.6 square metres in the past financial year. “In fact, the floor area of freestanding houses [is] also at a record high, just above 245 square metres,” he said.”It means that our homes are around about a third bigger than what they were 20 years ago and in fact 10 per cent bigger than a decade ago, but they are far bigger than other homes in other parts of the world.” (Simon Santow, Nov. 30, 2009, ABC NEWS).
So in a nation where family sizes are rapidly declining – our houses are getting bigger. How is this possible? Are we building personal museums? No. We are certainly among the most prosperous people living in the world, but if we are not filling our houses with people, we must be filling them with things. Entertainment and gadgets need rooms; so we build rooms for these ‘things’ to ‘live’. I know a man who lives with his wife in a new five bedroom, two bathroom home, with a magnificent home cinema, and the latter room remains unused. Perhaps the thought of having such a room is what he enjoys – in the same manner that the owner of the Porsche Boxster, who knows that he can never really use his automobile in Perth to its fullest potential, likes the thought of having the ‘thing’. Are we being seduced, or have we be already hypnotized by consumerism that we must have ‘things’. Has advertising separated our intellect from our moral compass. Can ‘things’ make us happy? The Greek philosopher Epicurus would suggest no. Epicurus who has become somewhat known as the philosopher of pleasure writes that it doesn’t take too much for the body and soul to find enjoyment and good rest, if we look for it, by living simply: “We find that the requirements of our bodily nature are few indeed, no more than is necessary to banish pain … Nature does not periodically seek anything more gratifying than this, not complaining if there are no golden images of youths about the house who are holding flaming torches in their right hands to illuminate banquets that go on long into the night. What does it matter if the hall doesn’t sparkle with silver and gleam with gold, and no craved and gilded rafters ring to the music of the lute? Nature doesn’t miss these luxuries when people can recline in company on the soft grass by a running stream under the branches of a tall tree and refresh their bodies pleasurably at small expense. Better still if the weather smiles on them, and the season of the year stipples the green grass with flowers.” (de Botton, 2000, p. 69). In what becomes a great paradox, Epicurus would write that it is difficult to live simply, because great material wealth, makes us poor, by way of the purchasing power we have confusing us with limitless choices. Like a moth caught up in a light, we are tantalized, and find ourselves not only in the close with buyer’s remorse, but frustrated by no longer being able to find the pursuit of happiness, in the non-material. In forgetting the maxim that the best things in life our free, we sit in our domestic museums desiring our ‘things’ to whisper to us some vacuous truth that will make us happy.
Yet the critical problem with our inability to make reasoned choices, is that poor micro-choices have a real effect on the misdistribution of resources, and as a consequence, effect social justice on a macro level. Building houses with the majority of the rooms being empty – while there are babies sleeping in cars, because of a housing shortage, says something about our nation. Purchasing automobiles that have no constructive purpose on our roads, that depreciate immediately as soon as they leave the showroom by 20% (in the case of the $150,000 Boxster by $30,000), to a sum that could in scholarship value change the lives of children, is wastage; purchasing bicycle tyres that are not needed at the cost of a child’s happiness is sheer nonsense. Have we ever seriously considered how else we waste our earnings on a daily, weekly and annual basis, solely because we have the capacity to do so? All these decisions quickly add up.
The Catholic Church has as two of its fundamental social principles, the principle of the universal destination of goods, and the principle of the preferential option of the poor. Let me explain them in turn. The first principle relates to the notion that God has “full and perennial lordship over every reality and of the requirement that the goods of creation remain ever destined to the development of the whole person and of all humanity.” (Compendium of The Social Doctrine of the Church, 2009, p. 89). As such, although the right to private property is a principle also held by the Church; each of us bears a social responsibility in how we spend our income – for there exists both a moral and social contract in which we are obligated to God and neighbor. John Stuart Mill, would say of liberty, that we can do anything we want, as long as it does not negatively affect the welfare of another person. The right to private property does not then give us unconditional power to squander resources. None of our economic decisions can ever be made in a vacuum; for finite resources are exactly that, because they are scarce and are in demand. If we cannot do neighbor direct good – we should not do him indirect ill, by wastage. Second, the preferential option for the poor, requires of us that we consider the plight of the marginalized in how we as a society re-distribute resources: “the principle of the universal distribution of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.” (Compendium of The Social Doctrine of the Church, 2009, p. 91). Such a principle does not smack of socialism or communism, for the Church encourages private enterprise, and economic ambition; yet simultaneously the Church wishes that the individual be wise in how they administer resources, so that by acting prudently, they can consider the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. Need we be reminded what Christ said about our concern for the poor in the Gospel of St, Matthew: “’Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’” (Matthew 25: 45, RSV).
The French economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, once commented “that the common measure of all values is man”. A seemingly innocuous line is rich in insight. God has created all resources, it is only the appearance of man in creation that gives peculiar values to particular things. Gold is expensive, because people desire it; as with diamonds, as with silver, as with real estate. If a tree falls in a forest, with no creature with the ability to hear near by – did it ever make a noise? Similarly, if there is no man or woman in the world – do any resources have a value, higher or lower than another? God in His perfection has created – humanity, in its imperfection has apportioned. What we can do, is make this inequity less of a burden for some, by how we live our lives; securing our personal needs, but rationalizing our wants, so that our wants do not become blurred with what is truly necessary to good living.
There is quite often much profundity in simple bed-time stories. Hans Christian Andersens’ tale The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837), tells of a vain emperor, duped to believe that his new outfit is made from a material that can only be seen by those of a high enough station to do so. The Emperor himself, can’t see the cloth, but he won’t admit this, nor will his ministers, because to do so would mean that they are lowly. At the heart of the folly is pride. So out struts the completely naked Emperor to meet his minions. A child cries out that the Emperor is naked, the whole crowd joins the chorus – but the Emperor keeps walking – even though he knows the assertion in his heart to be true. Why does he walk? For the reason that to turn back and cover himself would be to admit his ignorance; and he would rather be laughed to scorn for his physical inadequacies, than for his moral cupidity. The Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross reminds us all: “In the twilight of life, God will not judge our earthly possessions and human success, but rather on how much we have loved.” If what St. John of the Cross tells us is the Truth, a Truth that he garnered from his Master, Jesus Christ, then we should live with our eyes opened, knowing that we are wise Emperors who look after our financial resources, by making reasoned choices – and not being led and duped, by fashions, advertisements, jealousy and envy. For what would be worse than one day being caught out by a child, who points out to us, in our stupor of pride, that what we have clothed ourselves in, is in effect, emptiness. What would be worse? Probably this, to stand at the close of our lives, before God, in what we consider to be a veil of style and chic, but then look down to see that we are in fact standing before Him naked; and in our nakedness, being questioned about what we became in life, rather than what we owned, and what we purchased. For what I consumed, is what I became.