Social Prosperity

consumption, consumers, commodities, society, surplus, family, public, unit, increase and utilities

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First among the means of increasing the utilities which society may obtain from the envi ronment with a given expenditure of effort is the increase in variety of consumption which naturally follows the reduction of the appetite for particular commodities. This tendency has already received attention in connection with individual consumption. But there is a social gain which is greater than the gains to individ ual consumers. When there is no diversity of consumption, and but few commodities are de sired, all consumers necessarily demand the same things. But when diversity begins, all consumers do not modify their consumption in exactly the same way. The growth of new wants prevents the utilities from diminishing with the former rapidity, and when different consumers develop dissimilar wants, a com modity may satisfy a high want for one class of consumers, though it is capable of satisfying only a low want for other consumers, or it may have for them no utility whatever. Commod ities are brought above the margin of consump tion because new uses are found for them, or because the wants which they are calculated to satisfy increase in intensity. The surplus on other commodities is increased by the same process, and the entire social surplus is thus enlarged.

The consumption of the individual is im proved, as we have seen, by the substitution of commodities which confer positive pleasure, — while they at the same time prevent suffering or preserve life, — for those commodities which could perform only the latter function. This substitution goes on in society with great ra pidity because of the interchange of experiences. Since consumers have many qualities in com mon, the union of consumers in society gives additional intensity to this force which is oper ating to increase surplus utility. Practically, almost every important discovery becomes, soon after it is made, the common property of all civilized men, and the social process of eliminat ing absolute but negative utilities becomes thus one of the most obvious methods by which the social surplus is increased.

The socializing of is a term ap plied to the process by which those forms of consumption are extended, which include other 1 An excellent expression suggested by Professor Smart, in Annals of American Academy, November, P. 34.

persons than the original consumer in the bene fit conferred. A Christmas dinner is given, for instance, to which many guests are invited. It must be assumed that the host derives from the meal a pleasure sufficient to compensate him for all the expenses incurred. It is even prob able that, like other commodities, the dinner gives him a surplus of utility. In estimating the gain to society we must take into account not only this surplus to the host, but also the utilities enjoyed without expense by the guests. The Christmas dinner is typical of a large and in creasing class of pleasures. A costly work of art may, if consumption be sufficiently socialized, give pleasure to thousands beside the owner.

Thoreau " owned " all the desirable farms near Concord, because he could not be prevented from getting that kind of enjoyment from them which he most highly prized, Perhaps the widest scope for socialized consumption lies in the enjoyment of natural scenery, since it is difficult for the owner, even if he desires, to exclude others entirely from the view of a mountain, a lake, or a wood. To a very great extent, however, even this has been done, and there is no loss to society more indefensible and unjust than that which comes from exclusive consumption of those commodities that are calculated to give pleasure to large numbers of people. Society may directly increase its sur plus, without increasing the quantity of material commodities, by all those changes which make consumption social rather than exclusive.

Somewhat different from the foregoing is the tendency of consumers to choose those forms of wealth which are possible only when the social instincts are sufficiently developed to permit the union of many persons in a common pleas ure. For many, the family is the only recog nized social unit for purposes of consumption. It is fully realized that within the family the common enjoyment increases rather than de creases the pleasure-giving power of the com modities. That which from one standpoint might be looked upon merely as a disagreeable necessity, becomes, with the development of the love of family and kindred, a source of enjoyment. Under the tribal system the social unit for con sumption is a much larger one, and even under the guild system the unit commonly included, together with the master's family, a number of journeymen and apprentices. It is doubtful whether there has not been a social loss by the economic changes which have accompanied the breaking up of these larger units and the in troduction of the present system, in which the prevailing unit is the small family, and, if unmar ried, the individual consumer. But in highly developed society a new tendency is seen to be operating toward the forming of social units for the consumption, not so much of the necessaries, as of the comforts and luxuries of life. The school, the university, the church, the theatre, the railway, and the public highway are regarded, by some whose primitive instincts are strong, as an unavoidable evil, only to be submitted to as substitutes for private drives, family tutors, privately engaged musicians, etc., because the latter pleasures are put beyond reach by their expense. That this is not the universal view, however, is apparent from the preference shown for the cooperative forms of consumption by many who are above considerations of expense. The boy who is to be the future German em peror is taught, like any German youth, in the public gymnasium and in the University of Bonn. The wealthiest man does not refuse the public service for the transportation of his letters. He has his box in the public opera and his pew in the public church.

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