As a whole, America is regularly viewed as a materialistic country. Materialistic ideals are commonly found in our pop culture. Wealth and materials are draped through music, movies, books, and even news. From lyrics like this from Ace Hood, “I woke up in a new Bugatti,” to this from the Wu Tang Clan “Cash Rules Everything Around Me. C.R.E.A.M. Get the money. Dollar, dollar bill y’all,” and movies quotes like this from The Wolf on Wall Street “Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every time.” It is no wonder where America’s materialistic reputation comes from. But it is not only entertainment that blasts the public with materialism, it is also news headlines, creating buzz with attention grabbers like “Bill Gates is the World’s Richest Man.” With news like this, and entertainment like that, how could anyone not believe that American is a materialistic country? Is capitalism responsible for the materialistic ideals of American citizens, or is capitalism a freedom that has suffered a distorted appearance from the media?
According to Ludwig von Mises, capitalism is an unmatched freedom. “Capitalism is not simply mass production, but mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses.” This basic fundamental of capitalism clarifies that capitalism, in its original state as well as now, is meant to aid to the greater good of the people. It is an economic system of the people, for the people. The principle of capitalism is catered to the masses and not just “to the wants of the well-to-do.” This principle works because the general public needs goods and services to be able to function and businesses that do not align with the wants and needs to the people will fail. The general public is free to choose which goods and services they need and how much they will pay to have them, creating boundaries for the providers. Capitalism makes the consumer the real man in charge. This gives the buyers the ability to make or break a company, ultimately giving them the chance to “choose” the entrepreneurs and capitalists.
Capitalism, at its roots according to von Mises, is not in the least bit materialistic. It has its own built in system of checks and balances, such as, if the prices are raised to high, consumers will stop buying and the company will suffer. This keeps the greed within the capitalists in check, making it very difficult for a company to overcharge for a product because the buyer can choose to go somewhere else to acquire it. Socialists, however, do not see this balance within the capitalist system and believe that capitalism is fueled by greed and that government should be involved in managing the economy. Socialists do not view the worker in a factory as also a consumer; they see the workers as “slaves under capitalism.” Which is somewhat of an irrational accusation as each worker freely chooses to work for their employer in a capitalist system. The worker and the employer agree upon a fair wage and the worker then begins his job under the capitalist employer. This doesn’t sound like slavery, it sounds like a freedom, because it is.
As much as people want to believe greed is the fuel behind capitalism, it is not. Capitalism is run by free decisions within a market. There are many products that can be purchased in the market and it’s up to the consumer to choose which to get. This is a power given to the masses. The general public will be the deciding factor in whether or not an entrepreneur’s dream will make it or break it. If the entrepreneur creates something wanted by the general public, for a fair price, the people will buy it. If they buy it, the capitalist was successful; if they don’t, then he has two options. The first is to change his product and price to fit what the public demands, and the second is to except defeat. This lack of power to control general public decreases the ability for corporations to run on greed.
So capitalism, at the fundamental level, is greed free, which means fundamentally capitalism and materialistic behavior are completely unrelated, so how did the two become linked? Many people argue that for a capitalistic system to exist, a society must be fueled by greed. The people participating in the system must place material welfare over nontangible success, such as happiness. For example, it’d be like someone agreeing to marry someone else, not because they love him, but because she only wants the diamond ring. This notion would be bizarre, being completely willing to spend your life with someone, because you want a pretty ring that badly. Without this extreme factor, the argument is completely invalid, allowing for further validation of the lack of connection between capitalism and materialism.
Materialism is caused by greed and according to Aristotle, greed is a moral vice. A vice is basically a fault within a human that usually correlates with a virtue. Greed is a natural human short coming that is present in every economics system. Yes, that does include capitalism, but it is also present in socialism. Greed is even present in the mysterious hill people that don’t even practice traditional economic systems. Greed is a challenge that every human faces. Defining greed as a vice is still very broad. Greed is basically an excessive desire for wealth and possessions. What Aristotle is basically saying about greed is that every human has a natural desire for wealth, but as it is a fault, should be fought against.
Capitalism is not what makes America greedy, however America as a whole, is very greedy which leads to its materialistic way of life. The materialistic ideals of the country spring from the moral vice of greed described by Aristotle. This vice in America proves true right back to the beginning when European settlers destroyed many native civilizations for land and has been passed down ever since. Looking back at history, greed has clearly evolved. Now, it is very clear what people care about as it is presented publicly through media outlets. Greed is very evident in every aspect of pop culture, as well as news. It is a well-known fact, and common headline, that Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, however, a headline that is rarely seen is that “Bill Gates Donated Money to Charity This Week.” Greed is every present in American media.
America’s materialism will not change. The economic system can continue to grow stronger and evolve but greed will always be there. As much as capitalism gets blamed for materialism, the two are not connected. Greed is ever present in human nature and is the cause of materialism. Capitalism, on the other hand, allows the general public to participate strongly in the country’s economic system. It is undoubtedly a freedom that is constantly misrepresented in media. America is both materialistic and capitalist, however the two are not linked in the slightest.
3. Gove, Philip Babcock. Webster’s third new international dictionary of the English language, unabridged utilizing all the experience and resources of more than one hundred years of Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Springfield, Mass: Meriam, 1961.
4. Hood, Ace. January 20,2013, Bugatti. Trials and Tributes. (accessed May 4, 2014)
6. Wu Tang Clan. 1993. CREAM. Enter the Wu-Tang. (accessed May 4, 2014)