Friday 27 June 2008

Patriotic consumerism

Communism is often summarised by it’s proponents as being based on the idea of “each giving according his means and taking according to his needs”.

Well, I suppose it’s poetic at least. But it does summarise the incredibly naïve and ridiculously hopeful view that all you and I want from life is what we actually need and that we’re prepared to give away everything we have in order to get it. There’s no room for what we want on top of our basic needs. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go on about this, the best arguments for opposing this sort of ideology come from the simpletons who believe in it.

However the phrase came to mind while I was trying to summarise “consumerism” in a similar, single, pithy phrase.

By consumerism I don’t mean what people often take it to mean. I don’t mean a passion for extravagant shopping sprees or the idea that buying luxuries is the meaning of life. Instead I mean the real life situation we find ourselves in. Almost all of us buy something every day. Some of us sell things every day as well. Our lives are about trade. Desmond Morris famously described human beings as “naked apes” but I think we are probably better described as “trading apes” or “homo emptorus”.

Once you accept that this is what we are you can’t help but consider what might be the best environment for us to thrive in. Just as our very distant cousins, the mountain gorillas, thrive best when left alone in jungles full of fruit and roots consumers thrive best when they are given choices.

I genuinely believe that the happiest people in the world aren’t necessarily the richest, but are those whose lives are full of choices and opportunities. What they then do with them is their business but at least they have that level of control over their lives. Obviously these choices aren’t always available to everyone. Not everyone can afford the choice between a Mercedes and a BMW. Not everyone has the choice but that doesn’t mean that nobody should have them.

It’s not a political observation but a practical one. Where are people happiest in the world? In Zimbabwe, Burma or Turkmenistan where choices aren’t permitted or in Botswana, Western Europe or the Philippines where freedom of choice abounds?

So that’s why I, and I suspect most consumers, get worried when something threatens our freedom of choice. I don’t mean shortages or increasing prices, I think we’re all used to those by now.

I mean people who should know better, getting their fingers dirty by sticking them in our freedom of choice. Yes, I mean the blatant protectionism of imposing import restrictions on fruit and vegetables.

I would love my son to be the top of his class at school. Do I achieve this by excluding all of his classmates from their maths tests? He would certainly be top of the class then wouldn’t he? He’d also be bottom of the class and he wouldn’t have learned a thing. He wouldn’t have learned about competition, trying harder and doing his best.

What is the difference between that and banning foreign tomatoes and cabbages? The night before I wrote this there was a report on BTV News about a truck full of veg that was stopped at the border. That little known unit of The Ministry of Agriculture, The Cabbage Squad, had impounded lots of evil Al Queda vegetables who were trying to get into Botswana to engage in acts of high-fibre terrorism.

Their spokesman was quoted as saying that they had imposed restrictions “to boost the market”. Those were his exact words. I’m not a trained economist but I know that blocking competition doesn’t strengthen anyone or anything. On the contrary it weakens it.

Just as my son will be helped to get better at maths by competition, our farmers only improve when they have to produce better quality goods than those we import.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with supporting local producers but there are better ways to do it. The Government can employ specialist advisors who can go to our local farmers and give them helpful hints, technical recommendations and advice on practical business skills in marketing.

Then let the real decision-makers, you and me, decide. We can decide to support our local suppliers if we want to and of course we DO want to, don’t we? So long as what they produce is of good quality and sold at the right price. I firmly believe that most shoppers would love to buy locally produced goods if they are as good as, or better than, the competition. Up until recently there were bags of the very best tomatoes available with little blue, black and white tags holding them closed. We all bought them because they were excellent, because they were locally produced and we took a patriotic pride in doing so. It was a real joy to buy them.

I firmly believe it’s our patriotic duty to support local producers by buying goods from them, but only when they deserve it. Artificially supporting second-rate products is, in fact, profoundly unpatriotic.

This week’s stars!
  • Batlhalefi, Tlhabologo and Amogelang who all work in the Minister of Finance’s Office. We’re told that they are all hard-working, easy to work with and friendly.
  • Mopati Keabile, the Minister of Finance’s driver who is also hard-working and patient.

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