Materialism’s appeal is wilting globally, while policies prioritising inequality entrench South Africa’s rampant poverty. It’s time to rethink objectives.

The Spanish Flu was followed by the ‘roaring twenties’, when transformational technologies, such as cars, phones, radios and assembly lines, became commonplace. As the 1920s began, masks were discarded and skirts shortened. Leading Western nations came to enjoy unprecedented prosperity – with the US simultaneously prohibiting alcohol. 

Disruptions, such as pandemics, hasten societal shifts as values are reconsidered. Commitments by top public and private decision-makers to slow climate change by investing in renewables, batteries and electric cars have surged in the past year and a half. Many jobs, and thus lifestyles, are being re-conceived, partially or quite significantly. Meanwhile, investors are pouring trillions of dollars into ESG investment vehicles.

Most who succumbed to the Spanish Flu had lived in communities whose primary measure of success was having children who had children. During their lifetimes, surging industrialisation spurred huge rural-urban migration, thus uprooting centuries-old traditions shaped around subsistence lifestyles. 

Today’s materialistic values trace to factory owners needing to persuade former farm labourers to work far more hours than were required to cover their basic needs. Leisure’s appeal needed to be downgraded for factory investment to be viable. Marketing emerged to convince people that they needed things that they, and their ancestors, had always lived without.

Post-materialistic

The pandemic has spurred talk of young adults becoming post-materialistic. Perhaps. What is indisputable is that the green movement has suddenly gained tremendous momentum and it is hostile to many industrial-era choices. 

Services and expanding digital possibilities are now driving global growth. A rapidly expanding range of attractive lifestyle options are more green and less materialistic. Broadly prosperous societies can afford to be less obsessed with material pursuits. Middle class life in a middle-income country today can be far superior to that enjoyed by the royals of old. A European prisoner today receives far better dental care than  the treatment 19th-century nobles had endured. 

It’s not just that most workers in wealthier nations are highly productive and well paid. They can live within their means by shopping and saving prudently while enjoying amazing products and experiences. 

Most young people in today’s prosperous societies show little interest in pursuing great riches. Whereas their ancestors looked up to barons because when harvests failed they still had silos of grain, these people have been born into nations that have transcended survival challenges and then decisively pummelled poverty. Their disapproval of inequality may be a desire to validate their less material ambitions.

The situation in South Africa, perhaps the world’s most unequal country, is very different. The term ‘inequality’ is used here as political shorthand to reference a history of racial oppression. This provides the political cover to justify redistribution-focused economic policies designed to feed a massive patronage network. 

Exacerbates inequality

Policies prioritising redistribution at growth’s expense benefit the politically well-connected while leaving most South Africans impoverished and denied paths to explore – what should be – their possibilities. This further exacerbates inequality, which has become roughly the same among blacks as between blacks and whites.

Science and commerce have advanced so significantly in recent decades that it has become easy to achieve workforce productivity vastly in excess of what is required to avoid poverty, let alone frequent food stress. Almost all countries in other regions have adopted the blueprint to achieve this. Little more is required than fundamentals such as protecting property rights, integrating into the global economy and diffusing knowledge. Conversely, no country has achieved broad prosperity through redistribution. 

Our redistribution-focused policies have provoked mutually reinforcing unemployment, poverty and debt traps. Instead of now pivoting to adopt policies proven to sustain healthy growth, our debates are shifting to basic income grants for people in their prime earning years. As if this isn’t scary enough, it is being accepted within a business-as-usual context. This ultimately ties back to how our national discourse is anchored to a misguided prioritisation of inequality.

Much of the world has made tremendous economic progress, leading to strong employment gains and steady progress at reducing poverty. An emerging wave now seems to be downgrading materialism as environmental stewardship is upgraded. Today’s sudden distaste for carbon-intensive activities is disruptive, manageable and wise. The same might be said for a global recalibration downward of materialism if such a shift soon arrives.

Spotlight the insanity

In South Africa such a shift would spotlight the insanity of anchoring politics to perceptions around inequality, which then entrench a majority in a life of poverty. It is helpful that some people obsess about the trappings of success. It is not at all helpful that a majority of young adults, who would be happy to be reasonably compensated to work a reasonable number of hours performing reasonably challenging tasks, are sidelined.

Our economy has been hobbled, and young people’s prospects crippled, by policies fixating around income inequality. This is madness. The unfolding debates about basic income grants for healthy young adults must provoke a pivot away from policies shaped by an obsession with redistribution, and focus instead on growth and employment.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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