Finding meaning in the dustpan — or how Little Women, housekeeping, socialism and capitalism are all related

Believe it or not, in an act of near heroic intellectual prestidigitation, I’m going to explain to you how Little Women, housekeeping, socialism and capitalism are all related.  Or at least I’m going to try.  Here goes:

One of my all time least favorite movies is the 1994 version of Little Women.  It is a beautiful movie, and lovingly done, but it totally fails to “get” the message in Louisa May Alcott’s classic book.  In fact, it gets the message topsy-turvey, and that kind of thing irks me.

The wrong moment in the movie, the one that spoiled it for me, is a moment about 2/3 of the way into the movie, when Jo tries to explain to Professor Baehr her father’s philosophy.  I can’t find the quotation, and I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, but what Jo said was essentially a fancy version of “follow your bliss.”

Putting aside the fact that “follow your bliss” is not the message behind transcendentalism (although Bronson Alcott did, in fact, use his philosophy as a justification for repeatedly trying to follow his bliss), anyone who has actually read Little Women know that “follow your bliss” is most decidedly not the message in the book.  The book’s message is that you must find meaning and purpose in life by serving others.

No, I’m not making this up.  In chapter after chapter, with increasing force as the book nears its end, Jo is taught to think beyond her own needs and to sacrifice her hopes and desires to others.  Only in that way can she find happiness.  Whether Jo struggles with her baser self after Amy destroys her writing (only to learn that Amy is more important than her nascent career), or allows herself to be rude to Aunt March (only to lose the chance for a trip to Europe), the lesson is always the same:  Don’t think of yourself.  Thank of others.

Only when Jo is forced by her intense love for her dead sister Beth to try to take the latter’s place as the family’s domestic Goddess does Jo find her “happily ever after” — and she does so in the arms of Professor Baehr, who pedantically uses every opportunity to lecture Jo about the beauties and joys of self-abnegation. For Jo, therefore, life’s quality is to be found in appreciating the service of broom and dustpan.  By looking to others’ needs, she profits herself.

Right about now, I can hear the good statist asking asking me “How can you be a capitalist if you believe in self-sacrifice?  Capitalism is all about greed.  It’s only liberals who are willing to give to the general good.”  That question is as wrong as the movie was.

Capitalism works only if you find a need and fill it.  You have to look outside of yourself to determine what product others will want or what service they will need.  You then have to work, and work hard, to provide that  product or service for others.  If you have correctly read others’ needs, you will be rewarded.  In a capitalist system, that reward is money.  And in a free nation, you are allowed to keep that money (which, presumably, you will plow back into the capitalist marketplace by buying products or services that some other outward looking person has labored to put in the market).

Capitalism, then, precisely reflects Louisa May Alcott’s philosophy:  look to others, serve their needs, and reap the reward.  That she was speaking of emotional, not financial, rewards, doesn’t change the underlying paradigm.

Socialism, on the other hand, by allowing people to pass on to the government the responsibility for serving others, is essentially navel gazing.  You never have to do anything beyond sitting back and letting the government siphon your pay check, all the while telling yourself “Woo-hoo!  This feels really good, because in a completely passive, unthinking, effortless way, I’m serving others.”   In reality, you’re doing nothing at all.  Your moral contribution is no greater than the cow who automatically produces that milk.  It is the farmer who, through his labor and initiative, brings the milk to market, so as to feed the child.

And that, my friends, is why Little Women is, or at least should be, one of the doorways to free market capitalism and individualism.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

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  • Kirk Strong

    Spot on, Book!  You brought all those ideas together beautifully!  I just wish more people understood.
     
    The other day I came across a bumper sticker which read “People Not Profit”.  The car obviously is owned by a good person, a good person who cares about people, a good person who cares about people and who doesn’t have a clue about how Capitalism works in a free market economy.
     
    Here’s a thought experiment:
     
    Imagine we’re kids again, riding our bikes around on a hot day in late spring.  We happen by a construction site where a lot of workers are laboring in the hot sun.  An idea strikes us:  Perhaps those guys would like a tall, cold glass of lemonade.
     
    So we pool our savings, get some venture capital from our parents, open a lemonade stand and start selling lemonade at 25 cents a glass.  We discover that our idea was correct, and pretty soon we’re selling over a hundred glasses each afternoon.
     
    Who benefits?
     
    The workers certainly do.  The fact that they are willing to pay 25 cents for our lemonade is proof positive that they agree we have brought something good into their lives — at least 25 cents worth of good.  And we benefit also because we are able to sell for 25 cents what costs us only 10 cents to produce.
     
    Then we get another idea.  How about raising our price to 30 cents a glass?  Then we could start making some real profit!  Now we’re on the verge of becoming those hateful things that the left loves to preach about: greedy capitalistic profit mongers.
     
    But the next afternoon we go to open up our lemonade stand, and — Whoa!  What’s this?  There’s another lemonade stand right across the street!  And he’s only charging 15 cents a glass!
     
    We go across to the new guy and say, “Hey man, what do you think you’re doing?  This is our place to sell lemonade!  You gotta go somewhere else!”  And of course he comes back with,  “Like hell I will!  This is a free market!  I can open up a lemonade stand wherever I want and I can charge whatever I want!”
     
    We consult with our corporate attorney and discover he’s right.  So now we have a choice:  We can either lower our price to 15 cents a glass or go out of business.  We decide to lower our price and tell our executives sorry, you won’t be getting any fat bonuses this year.
     
    Who benefits?
     
    Certainly not us.  It’s the workers – our customers — who benefit.  Now they’re getting the same lemonade they got before but for 40% less.
     
    And of course that’s how free-market Capitalism works.  The profits available with Capitalism are what motivate entrepreneurs to find new and better ways to bring good things into the lives of other people.  Competition in the free market is what keeps them from becoming too greedy and keeps prices low.
     
    And who benefits?
     
    We all do!
     
    If that good person who owned the car with the bumper sticker understood these simple ideas, the bumper sticker would read “People And Profit” because with free-market Capitalism the two go together.
     
    How can we get more people to understand that?
     
     

  • NancyB

    I too loved Little Women, never really thought about why.  I just read it, loved it and think about it whenever I think about my top 100 books.  I’m not much of an analyzer, but like to read other’s analyses and this is great.  Thanks so much.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    “The car obviously is owned by a good person, a good person who cares about people, a good person who cares about people”…the goodness is less obvious to me. It’s equally possible that the car is owned by someone whose main driver is conformity to the group he associates with, and who is too intellectually lazy to research and think about things before he pontificates on them.
    Re Book’s analogy, while reading Barrons yesterday I was again irritated by the phrase ” Company X controls 63% of the gerbilator market” (or something like that.) As many have found to their sorrow, you don’t *control* a market unless you have legal monopoly privileges…and even then, it can shift out from under you.
     

  • Kirk Strong

    You are certainly correct David.  He probably thinks he is a good person, but he almost certainly does not really care about other people, and it’s highly doubtful that exposure to the logic of free-market Capitalism would alter his opinion in the slightest.  I failed to make clear that I was being ironic in my description of him.
     
    And I agree with your second point.  Barrons needs to be more careful with their use of words.  They do make a difference!

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Sadly, it’s not just Barrons…virtually all business journalists seem to use the phrase “controls X% of market Y.” Much journalistic writing seems to be based on the use of phrases that are rarely or never used in normal life…don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual businessperson use this phrasing.

  • Danny Lemieux

    What people that drive around with bumper stickers like “People not Profit” really believe is that they should be able to get the benefits of other peoples’ labor and creativity for free.

  • Mike Devx

    I’m not completely happy with that message from  ‘Little Women’.
     

    > In chapter after chapter, with increasing force as the book nears its end, Jo is taught to think beyond her own needs and to sacrifice her hopes and desires to others.  Only in that way can she find happiness.  [...] the lesson is always the same:  Don’t think of yourself.  Thank of others.  [...] For Jo, therefore, life’s quality is to be found in appreciating the service of broom and dustpan.  By looking to others’ needs, she profits herself.


    Capitalism works only if you find a need and fill it.  You have to look outside of yourself to determine what product others will want or what service they will need.  You then have to work, and work hard, to provide that  product or service for others.  If you have correctly read others’ needs, you will be rewarded.
     
    It certainly is true that you have to find a niche and fill it, and you have to work hard to achieve success.  But I’ve never viewed it as self-negation, nor as sacrifice.  In fact, to live a rewarding life, your work *should* be fulfilling… to YOU.  That’s why I’ve always seen the free market, capitalism, and individualism as a mesh where “both sides” benefit.  You’re creating something you want to create, and the other guy is buying something he wants to buy.  No one is coerced; no one sacrifices themselves for the benefit of “others” nor for “society”.
     
    When times are tough people are forced to take jobs that aren’t fulfulling, just to pay the bills, just to eat and put food on the table for the family.  But even that is not a “sacrifice”.  You’re doing what you have to do.  And you’re doing it for those you love.  You’re not doing it to “sacrifice” yourself to the needs of anonymous others, or to spread the wealth, to give everyone except yourself their “fair share”.
     
    You can certainly make mistakes.  You may love creating paintings but not find any buyers, and struggle and even starve.  You’ve not filled a niche, then – your fulfilling work is only half of the capitalist argument.  You have to find willing buyers.
     
    But the key is that you are not coerced; nor are they.  And that’s what obama and his ilk consistently get wrong. They constantly preach the virtues of sacrifice and the need for you to provide for the benefits of others.  The ‘Little Women’ philosophic message seems to fit their philosophy as well.
     
    Don’t get me wrong.  I think we’re all better off if we care for each other in our community.  I think a safety net to catch those who are plummeting to despair and ruin is a good idea – as long as we can afford it.  Donations and philanthropy strengthen a civilization.  But I do think, to the extent you can, you should seek work that you enjoy, and make fair trades for the product of your effort with others who want it.  And then you care for your loved ones.  And you care for yourself.  With whatever is left over after that, you can VOLUNTARILY donate, beyond the basic needs of government, to any others whom you CHOOSE to help.
     

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    The Japanese has a strong philosophical and cultural take on self-sacrifice. If you know of their history, you might remember that they used to consider suicide and dying to essentially be superior to living in shame. After the US won and rebuilt Japan, a different subset of the same philosophy came be dominant. This one said that in order to protect the Emperor, Japan, and your family (in that order), you must also protect yourself and keep yourself alive. That to atone for sins cannot be done if you are dead. That to save another, requires that you keep yourself alive. Otherwise you will save them from one threat, but only expose them to an endless sadness. To save people entirely, you must also save yourself.
     
    That was the progress of japanese cultural beliefs from hara kiri to today. Interestingly, America has sort of gone down the opposite slope.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Death cults anybody? Rationing of healthcare? Sacrifice yourself, for the Greater Good. But whose Greater Good?
     
    Who decides what is good and evil, if you are Dead, neh?

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    “How can we get more people to understand that?”
     
    Ask them how come American tv producers stick with one show for multiple seasons/years rather than giving some poor up and coming writer a chance by buying his own story and world building.
     
    http://thenullset.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/2008vps.jpg
     
    These were the shows Japanese viewers saw on tv. Each one was made from an individual author’s creative vision that they sell to pay the rent.
     
    People watch tv a lot it seems. Movies, if not tv. But they don’t ever think about the market model behind it. Because they’re stuck in their own socio-political-economic sphere.
     
    Which market is stronger in competition. The one that has 140 individuals competing against each other, or the one with 3 people competing against each other?

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Why is it that people say cable has X channels but nothing is on?
     
    Isn’t it because there’s a fundamental lack of competition? The market is huge in demand, but the supply of original creativity… not so much.