When talking about the nature of business a couple of years back, fellow Sweet Talker David brought up a wonderful quote from the movie Sabrina:
Bogart: Making money isn’t the main point of business. Money is a by-product.
Holden: David -What’s the main objective? Power?
Bogart: Ah! That’s become a dirty word.
Holden: What’s the urge? You’re going into plastics. What will that prove?
Bogart: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you’re in business. It’s coincidental that people who’ve never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?
Emphasis added by me.
I wrote a piece about consumers, but it was received very badly by some, mostly (it seemed to me) because of what is implied by the very word “consumer”.
Let’s toss to the side those old notions of production and consumption, so tied to a mental model developed around manufacturing. Instead, let’s think about making use, and provisioning what is being used.
More importantly, let’s stop thinking of these as two separate things apart from one another, and try harder to talk about them like the unity they actually form.
In their home lives, parents may buy books, and educational video games, and Cable TV with cartoons, all for their children. If they’re the planning sort, they buy food for the week. If they’re not, they might find themselves ordering pizza one night. If they want some time away from the kids, they probably need a babysitter, and odds are they will go out to a restaurant, or a movie.
Every thing or service that they and their children use—books to read, games to play, TV to watch, food to eat, a babysitter to make sure their children are safe and taken care of, somewhere to spend time together away from typical routines—must be provisioned beforehand.
A large number of people are involved in provisioning a children’s book; we may think of the author, of course, and the people who work at the publisher, but complex supply chains bring countless hands into the process. All of these people, in turn, contribute to the provision of books like the ones our initial parents bought, so that they, too, may be able to buy books or games for their own children, or for themselves.
Meanwhile, the parents in the original example must contribute to the provision of some thing or service in order to be able to buy the very items mentioned above in the first place!
In this way, provision and use are processes which form a unity.
Today, a huge supermajority of what we use is provisioned through commerce. But not all of it, not by a long shot. Infrastructure is largely provisioned through tax-financed institutions, for example. Politically, countries like America long ago moved towards provisioning the great bulk of education through such institutions, as well.
Home provisioning, such as cleaning dishes and clothes, or having a vegetable garden, still accounts for a great deal of what we use as well. We may provision a car through commerce, but when we drive our child to school, we are opting to use ourselves as drivers rather than opting for a car service.
For most of human history, nearly everyone had to spend nearly every hour of the day working so that they could provision their own food. The shift from subsistence farming to nearly everyone in developed nations provisioning their food through commerce has been a tremendous gain.
In the 20th century, there were many attempts to provision everything through government administration. They went terribly. As I said above, this does not discredit any provisioning through government administration. But it has certainly made it clear that there are limitations we would do well to heed.
In a country like America, government provision largely takes the form of government participation in commerce. Tax-funds are the basis of the purchasing, and government officials oversee and make key decisions, but the materials must be bought from companies, and the labor is often done by contractors. And government officials go home and buy their children’s books and games just like everyone else—in our country, government provision forms a unity with private use, as well.
While maintaining the wisdom of making distinctions, I think we could stand to be a little less doctrinaire, less categorical. There are many ingredients that go into the making of the ordinary life; a great deal of those ingredients are provisioned through commerce.