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Ferraris for All?

July 27, 2009

6-novitec-ferrari-f430Earlier this month, the RSA held a debate on Neal Lawson’s  new book, All Consuming.  You can download it here (mine is the last question that’s asked!). 

It was a bright, brief, fascinating, but also frustrating debate.  It certainly got me thinking, though.  The most stimulating contributor (in the sense that I was surprised how angry he made me!) was surely Daniel Ben-Ami.  Daniel Ben-Ami is a man on a mission.  He’s a free marketeer of the first order, who believes that more consumerism is what the world needs, not less.  His blog, and forthcoming book, is called Ferraris for All.  That is, desire for more things will continue to stimulate the world economy and no one has the moral right to limit anyone else’s consumption.

Now, I think I need to hear some of Ben-Ami’s points.  He’s concerned about elitism – snobby middle class ‘ethical’ consumers turning their noses up at the ignorant and selfish lower classes (he doesn’t pull his punches!).  He’s concerned about the advance of technology – if we lose our ambition and drive for more, will humanity continue to make the advances necessary to further improve quality of life?  And he’s concerned about the poor.  They don’t, he rightly points out, want to be told what they can’t have, or shouldn’t buy.  They want to be told what they can have, and what they can secure for their families.  And they certainly don’t want to hear that the lifestyle Western consumers have luxuriated in for decades will be refused to them on moral grounds.  (Actually if ever there was an argument for a vanguard of consumer simplicity it is this.  Increasingly, we need to ask others around the world to restrain their consumption.  The more we can take a lead with this now, the better).

But I’m not convinced about the Ferraris for All thing at all. 

Ferraris are the epitome of turbo-consumption: beyond needs, beyond speed limits, beyond what our atmosphere can handle.  Imagine if everyone had, and used, a Ferrari.  Think of the noise and fumes at the school run!  ‘Bye bye, little Jonny’  ‘What?’  ‘Bye Bye!’  ‘Mummy I can’t hear you, or see you…’

I wonder how Ferrari feel about becoming a symbol for the aspiration to end global poverty?   Bemused, I would guess.  Ferrari don’t make cars for ‘all’ and they never will; they make cars for the few.  That’s the point of a Ferrari – it marks you out from the crowd.  If everyone had one, the rich would buy something else.  Maybe Clean Water for All would be a better slogan?

There’s something slightly dark about Ferraris for All, too.  It’s the endless promise of market capitalism.  Somehow when we, the world’s rich, had clean water it was not yet ‘time’ for poor countries to receive the benefit; when we had basic computer technology it was not yet ‘time’ either; now it is still not ‘time’.  But one day we will all have Ferraris.  Really?  On what evidence?  We don’t have to advocate the overthrow of capitalism to ask why it takes something like $166 dollars of global ‘growth’ to enable even $1 to trickle down to  those living in absolute poverty (see the New Economics Foundation).  Ben-Ami is full of sharp jibes at what he calls ‘anti-consumerism’ but seems unaware of the danger of justifying a consumer dream that only serves our own interests.  It takes the perspective of the Old Testament prophets to remind us that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’.  That includes self-justifying ‘ethical’ consumers, but it doesn’t exclude self-justifying capitalists.

More than anything else, though, I’m just not convinced that the desire to own a Ferrari is likely to create a society where everyone has one.  My worry isn’t that malnourished people might one day own sports cars.  I agree, this would be better than where we are now.  My worry is that that consumerism isn’t shaping me into someone who cares about the poor.  My worry is that it makes me busy, self-focussed and defensive.  My worry is that my consumer habits make me less open to the poor, less able to support their legitimate demands for fairer terms of trade, and just less interested in the truly significant things in life.  Will a Ferrari help me change this?

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 4, 2009 11:05 am

    I’ve come across Ben-Ami before, and yes, he is infuriating! He shamelessly bangs the drum for excess and dismisses anyone who suggests anything else, in the face of overwhelming evidence that we can’t all be rich. Unless those ferraris are made of bamboo, and run off solar power, and don’t require roads or maintenance, his little mantra is a delusional fantasy.

    Unfortunately it’s the kind of fantasy that a large part of the world, many politicians included, are very happy to go along with.

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