I woke yesterday in the most amazing place. Things were not too hot, but not really too cold either, as the first hint of dawn filtered in. I felt no apprehension about animals that might be sneaking up on me and not even investigator raccoon could be heard approaching tentatively as he had the morning before.
I was on an actual mattress with some sort of box of springs below it. The ground was soft yet solid at the same time, and strangely level. I reached for a switch on the wall, within reach of the bed, pushed it, and the room was illuminated. This was all mine for now—a secure, private incredibly comfortable retreat from the elements—a place where one might recline, might plug in something electrical, might find security from the harsh realities of the wild and the prying eyes of passers-by—a place where the injured might convalesce.
I slipped on shoes that have covered hundreds of miles of pavement and trail and walked down a single flight of stairs to a room that smelled of coffee and not only was there an authentic aroma but also a full pot—all I wanted available all the time! It was an unreal place and I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Back upstairs, I plugged in the griddle I’d bought for next to nothing the evening before at a thrift shop, opened a cold box beneath it holding my eggs and sausages, and started a protein-laden breakfast. I sat on a chair. Not on a log or an oddly-shaped rock or on the ground on my sleeping pad, but on a plastic chair, designed to fit and support. I could have adjusted it for my long legs.
Speaking of those legs, they were still tired from the day before, but wouldn’t need to travel far today. Almost everything I needed was here in this building, but four minutes’ walk away was the Walmart, full of—almost literally—everything. Also four minutes away was the Burger King where I’d discovered that an industrious young fellow named Jacob would craft me something called a “Double Whopper”—my way, right away, if I were polite. I expected to visit again with Jacob again in the evening.
I found my way down to a second cup of coffee and then carried trail-soiled laundry one door down to a set of steel boxes that would fill with water, tumble the laundry around for me, soak it, and separate it from its dirt. An equally amazing machine, a sort of domestic centrifuge, would revolve at unimaginable speed a little later, tumbling my clothes about even while blowing hot air on them! All the time, I would organize my little room, enjoy my coffee, and wait for clean, dry clothes to simply appear.
Taking out my flat little blue computer from the pack, I plugged it into one of the many receptacles in the room and an equally flat little battery began to charge. It was now that the mysterious force known as Wi-Fi reached my computer and all the information of all humanity in all the world was instantly available to me. Text and sound and video flowed from an unseen tap, filling the room with reports of life beyond northern Idaho. I could have gone anywhere.
It was beyond comfortable—almost too much luxury. I felt I was in danger of overload or spasm. But I couldn’t escape the nagging thought that what I was doing was so wrong.
I was playing into the hands of the greedy and I was enriching them. The greedy founders of this hotel chain were enriched by my presence. The greedy makers of the mattress I was enjoying were enriched by people like me luxuriating upon their wares. The service companies that kept the air conditioners running, the refrigerators humming, and the clothes dryers spinning were all getting wealthier due to me. Maytag Corporation was benefiting from my need for clean clothes. Walmart was just getting wealthier and bigger due to people like me who needed discount things on short notice. The greedy founders of the thrift shop I’d patronized to grab a few housewares were laughing all the way to the bank. The Burger King was clearly laughing, too, and didn’t try to hide it. Then there was greedy Jacob manning the service counter who was more than happy to deprive me of $8.50, so long as he made a couple hundred dollars in his next paycheck.
The greed was rampant and I was playing into it. Worst of all was the sudden realization that I couldn’t purge myself of this greed either—I wanted all those little luxuries. I could just continue to live outdoors in a tent, drink water from the river, and cook on my wood stove, but my greed compelled me to give all these other greedy people some of my money. What to do?!
A gentleman named Adam Smith wrote on this conundrum a long time ago. Writing in praise of free markets and free people, he seemed to think that capitalism assumes everyone’s greed but renders it powerless to do harm. I’m going to think about that a bit and get back to it at some point. I think there’s a little more I’d like to write on capitalism.
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Nothing like 44 days on the trail to make the comforts of civilization so obvious and appreciated! Hope your recovery is speedy and complete. Since you may not be carrying a copy of “Wealth of Nations” with you, here’s the money quote: “As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promot it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.” (Pp. 477-8 in my 1976 University of Chicago edition.)