Capitalism is Addiction

This is part of a new series I will do called Capitalism Is. It is not meant to be persuasive; I just want to look at how capitalism in practice works and affects society. I realize the title is a bit clickbaity, but it’s 2018 and this is the internet.

Smoking kills. We all know this. Even people who smoke know this. There are some misconceptions as to how smoking kills – the public service announcements focus on lung cancer even though most smoking deaths occur because of vascular diseases. But I digress, smoking kills about half of its users early and unpleasantly and therefore is excise taxed and banned in certain public places.

Most capitalist societies enact regulations like the ones above to protect its citizens. This is good.

If we look deeper at this issue, we see a pretty big problem. If smoking kills, and the information about how smoking kills and at what rates is easily available online, why do people still smoke, especially those in high-risk groups?

Because humans are very bad at making decisions that benefit them. Now, just because I don’t smoke doesn’t mean I’m smarter than smokers, or any better at making decisions. I went to a school with a smoke-free campus, lived in Santa Monica for a while, with its very strict smoking laws, and live in California, where everyone shames smokers. Plus, my family would have a cow if I was a smoker. Therefore, I have enough pressure not to smoke.

I’m still a human and more specifically an animal. I am still terrible at making decisions. I like short-term gains like delicious meals. Social pressure (again) has caused me to start running for 20 minutes daily.

Okay – so where does capitalism come into play? Well, when selling a product or service on the free market, you want it to be as addictive as possible. You want repeat purchases and customer advocates. Do people talk more about their favorite ice cream or their health insurance plan? Short term gains have higher NPS. I’ve been in many meetings where we brainstormed how to make our product or service more addictive. This is not a nefarious thing. We looked at the customer needs, the benefits, how we could make their life easier, save them money, or give them delight.

Sometimes, in these meetings, I think about the long-term benefit of what we’re doing. Is this serving the customer long-term? Could there be a better choice for them? The answers vary, because the products and services vary. I’ve definitely worked on fantastic products where we were providing very clear short- and long-term benefit to our customers. This way, we could make it both addictive and beneficial. But it takes thoughtfulness, and providing real benefit is not always profitable and even more often not knowable. Because even I, your thoughtful internet guide, am wrong. A lot.

Capitalism evolves based on human decisions, which are often bad. Regulatory bodies try to prevent abuses, but regulatory bodies are also run by humans, who also make bad decisions, no matter how educated or informed they are. For example, the misleading marketing that smoking causes lung cancer. People know way less lung cancer sufferers than vascular disease sufferers. Lung cancer might be more visual, but it also gives people the illusion that the danger of smoking is overblown or exaggerated. This is just a theory I have – I have no evidence that more accurate marketing would cause people to smoke less and increase their lifespan.

I know I sound a little cynical in saying all humans suck at decision-making. But hear me out – It’s more helpful to be aware of your innate inabilities than to convince yourself you got it because you read a book about it. Simply put, you are a human driven largely by emotion just like all your mammal ancestors. I am always fascinated by how similar dogs are to us – self-centered in a silly, endearing way; jealous; passionate; curious; playful; communicative; easily distracted; uncontrollably focused on food and gain. I think less confidence in our abilities would yield better results. Yes, x might feel good, and you might keep wanting to do it or spend money on it, but remind yourself every now and then, that you have uncontrollable urges to fulfill ancient emotional needs and they might not benefit you long-term. Additionally, most industries are sold and marketed to appeal to them, even if unwittingly.

Food for thought. 🍔

4 Replies

  • There are several major issues with this line of thought. The first, and most fundamental, is that you haven’t defined “Capitalism.” Is Capitalism simply “private ownership?”. Does it apply to the entirety of the system, encompassing even the role of the government in economic activity? Or is it a simple matter of profit-seeking economic activity? Define your “Capitalism,” and do so carefully, because there are many, many economic theorists who can be said to be “Capitalists,” in the colloquial sense of the word, and who approach economics with completely different premises and methods.

    Second, a blanket statement like the following is risky because it overgeneralizes:. “Well, when selling a product or service on the free market, you want it to be as addictive as possible. You want repeat purchases and customer advocates.” The distinction of “free market” is a betrayal of bias, because the activities described in that statement are not restricted to a “free market” only. Any market, even one centered around barter, wants repeat purchases and customer advocates. It makes zero difference whether or not the market is heavily regulated, closed, or free. Repeat purchases and advocates mean success, and can exist independent of any “addiction” your marketing strategies and product might elicit from the consumer.

    That statement basically can be summed up as “Economic activity of all kinds is addictive.”

    The smoking line of discussion suffers because it does not match empirical evidence. We have causal and medical evidence that smoking is cause of lung cancer. Debating this isn’t even on the table.

    Perhaps mot troubling is the fact that you argue that Capitalism is addictive, while simultaneously referring to the efforts you yourself have made to produce a product that is beneficial to the customer. You even contradict the supposed myopia you are arguing against when you note that you consider the long term benefits of a product. Which is it? Are you a villainous capitalist seeking only to make a quick buck, or are you and your consumers factoring in the long term as well? Obviously one can do both, but the existence of both calls into question the notion that the yet undefined “Capitalism” is addictive. You might want to read into writings on the nature of Addiction, including Rational Addiction Theory.

    I also have to wonder if we can consider all addictive actions or substances to be purely detrimental. You might also want to read up on John Kenneth Galbraiths’ writings on advertising.

    • I don’t think you followed the smoking story correctly – yes it causes lung cancer, but it causes heart disease much much more. Regardless, people still make bad decisions, and I wonder if it’s because lung cancer takes center stage. Basically, we should be better at manipulating people to make better decisions. But we suck at it, even knowing that eliminating smoking would astronomically affect life expectancy.

      Addiction is not necessarily bad. Smoking isn’t bad because it’s addictive – the addictiveness merely compounds it’s bad health effects.

      I wanted “Capitalism” to be more ambiguous, as this is not a formal paper, but a blog post. I think most economic theorists are wrong, because they assume they understand too much, so I like a more practical conversation about economics, including relying on a colloquial definition of capitalism. I reference business and some regulation, so any regulated (from light to heavy) capitalist system with private ownership would fit into this conversation.

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