COMPLAINTS about consumerism roll around as regularly as Christmas. The festival is hijacked by advertisers who encourage us to buy gifts nobody really wants or needs, cynics say. And iconoclastic economists come up with formulas to prove presents are a waste of resources, generally costing more in cash than the value recipients place on them. It is all nonsense. Apart from the obvious - gifts are an expression of affection - Christmas presents make the most of the benefits capitalism can provide. And as this season shows, there is no better economic system to meet our needs and fulfil our wants in ways which were unimaginable just a decade past.
The days of men receiving socks and ties they do not want, of women being given fragrances they will not wear, of children being polite to aunts who bought them last year's must-have toy are gone in families where people participate in the digital revolution. Capitalism has transformed Christmas giving from a hit and miss affair to the liberation of our imaginations. This year people all over the developed and developing world will receive new digital music players, giving them an ability to listen to what they like, where they like, which was unimaginable a little more than a decade ago. The same sort of availability is beginning to apply to films and television and the people who received eBook readers will be followed by millions more as access to books improves in ways unequalled since the printing press. Similarly, the revolution in interactive computer games, with players participating in the narrative process makes users creators, not consumers, of online entertainment. Obviously not everybody spent last night learning how to make the most of a new system. Many spent Christmas night practising traditional rituals, updating their social networking pages, emailing photos to distant friends, watching seasonal videos. But there are few whose Christmas was not the richer for the way the digital technologies have changed our lives in the past decade.
The way capitalism helped us make merry this Christmas deeply disturbs those who say the mass media controls information and entertainment. For while they were once snobbish staples of left-wing politics such polemics became irrelevant once the internet began to change everything. Retail sales spike at Christmas, not because we are conned but because we want to give gifts that improve the lives of people we care about. And when it come to entertainment that means the wired world. What was on offer was better this year than last and Christmas 2010 will mark another improvement. It's the gift of capitalism.