Cheap Capitalism

A. M. Rogers is an attorney and physicist living in Florida.

The watchword of the ‘90s is said to be “frugality.’ But during hard economic times, it is especially important to keep in mind that frugality under capitalism means something very different from frugality under other economic systems.

To illustrate, meet a friend of mine named Max. Max considers himself the personification of frugality. He takes great pride in just how much he can do without and, whenever we talk, he always slips in some tidbit on this aspect of his character. For example, he has told me how he puts cardboard in his shoes rather than purchase new ones. I know he owns just two pairs of pants and an equal number of shirts. He runs his shower water a trickle at a time and he keeps his heat down low even in the winter. In fact, he keeps his heat down so low at his New York house that the gas company sent out men to replace his gas meter. The gas company just couldn’t believe the meter was measuring the gas correctly, despite Max’s proud assurances it was.

Though Max may look and act like a pauper, he happens to be a man of professional standing who earns a decent income. Unlike Max, most people in his income bracket are flaunting their wealth by purchasing boats, fancy automobiles, designer clothing and, at the least, brand new shoes.

Yet Max understands that, just as it is capitalism that allows these other people to display their success with a dazzling array of material goods, it is also capitalism that gives his reverse snobbery meaning.

When Max tells his tales of meager living, he is fully aware of who is listening to him. He knows that part of the enjoyment he gets in telling his stories depends on the background of his audience. He wants to leave his listeners wondering and more than a little astonished. The one question he wants his stories to raise is “why?” Why does Max choose to live this way? Aha! A choice is involved.

Imagine, instead, that Max is living in a country such as Russia or one of its neighboring republics. Or imagine that Max lives in a Third World country. In these countries, an average professional, such as Max, may not have the choice to go out and buy new shoes when he needs them. The average person, in these countries, may not be able to take a shower even if it is just a trickle.

In materially and economically impoverished countries, a person cannot decide when, where, and how to be frugal. In these countries, the average person has no choice of what not to spend his money on. If there is no food, he does not eat. Or, if there is bread but no meat, he eats bread. Or, if there are shoes but no coats, he has shoes but not a coat. It is frugality by poverty in these countries, not frugality by choice.

It is true, however, that unlike many people these days, Max is unique in that he is not forced to be as frugal as he is. But he is like the people who are forced to be frugal in that he has, as they have, a choice over what items and objects on which to economize.

For example, Max lives in a nice house. Though it’s not a mansion, it is a house inconsistent with someone who has cardboard in his shoes. Ironically, to Max, a nice house was just too essential to cut back on. He sees food, clothing, shoes, and heat as luxuries. Consequently, it is on these that he economizes. And even poor people can occasionally splurge on the things they enjoy most whether it be, for example, a movie or clothes or cigarettes.

Being frugal under capitalism is a matter of individual choice and, for this reason, it is something different from being frugal under other economic systems. In America, most persons still can decide what they want to do without or on what they want to economize. Each person’s strategy or tactics in being frugal will be unique to him. It will depend on what he values, what he is indifferent to, what he can most afford and myriad other individual factors.

Choosing what not to spend your money on requires that there be material goods around on which you can possibly spend your money. Freedom of frugality requires the enormous wealth of choices afforded by the capitalist system. Ironically, it takes a rich capitalist country to give cheapness real meaning.

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