Menzies, Capitalism and Instant Gratification

Current advice from an old Australian leader

Sean Jacobs, Menzies House, 9 October 2014

Ask a 20-year old how to get rich, says Keith Campbell, and they will likely give you three answers: “I can either be famous on reality TV, or I can go start a dot-com company and sell it to Google in about a week, or I can go work for Goldman Sachs and just steal money from old people.”

Today the idea of instant gratification rightly faces a tough audience. Reward without effort closely resembles the entitlement culture of expectation minus responsibility found not just with young people.

In criticising instant gratification, however, it becomes easy to blame two key pillars of Western success – technology and capitalism. Paul Roberts, for example, in his recent book Instant Gratification records the downsides of coping “with a consumer culture almost too good at giving us what we want” – self-centeredness, short-termism, hyper-customisation and violating social norms like “taking calls in theaters or posting videos of others’ misfortunes.”

Roberts traces these setbacks to the rise in modern corporate capitalism. This, he says, emerged as companies recovered from the stagnancy of the 1970s through “cutting taxes and regulations, and thereby allowing the efficiencies of the marketplace to find the most direct route back to wealth.”

Rejuvenated commitments to efficiency and profit entered the 1980s and joined ranks with the microprocessor, speeding up the march to consumer satisfaction. Bringing a vehicle from conception to the showroom floor, for example, now took 18 months instead of four years. Doubling computer speeds and halving costs – otherwise known as Moore’s Law – have clearly made instant upgrades, iPhones and widgets much easier but so many other things cheaper.

Instant gratification, Roberts concludes, is thus a “consequence not of our failures but of our extraordinary successes.” So how does one make sense of this all? In one direction it appears the charges of mass consumption and short-termism are true but, at the same time, our progress seems tied to it.

Interestingly Robert Menzies – Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister – made similar observations to Roberts prior to the fusion of microprocessors and corporate capitalism. Reflecting in his 1967 memoir Afternoon Light Menzies wrote that, “The scramble for individual wealth and prosperity will go on with all its accompaniments of selfishness. The short view, the demand for immediate and increasing personal benefits, will place great obstacles in the way of statesmanship and the steady march of civilization.”

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