Saturday, January 20, 2007

Martin Luther King on Frugality and the "Drum-Major Instinct"

While I was putting together some quotes from MLK on economic justice for last Monday's post, I came across his wonderful 1968 sermon, "The Drum-Major Instinct." In it, he talks about our need to feel important, special, better than other people-- addressing how it affects our lives in a lot of ways, devoting a significant amount of time to it in the context of frugality and personal finance. It's a really insightful exploration of some of the reasons why we spend instead of save, and how we can channel those impulses in a more positive way.

He starts with a Bible story about James and John, who asked Jesus if they could sit at his left and right hand, "in thy glory," and were rebuffed. Then he says:

Before we condemn them, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct...

He talks a little about how this leads us to seek praise, and to join groups and try to rise in them, and to like seeing our names in print. Then he gets to the meat of the discussion about personal finance, frugality, and keeping up with the Joneses:

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you're just buying that stuff. That's the way the advertisers do it...

You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of $5,000, your car shouldn't cost more than about $2,500. That's just good economics. And if it's a family of two, and both members of the family make $10,000, they would have to make out with one car. That would be good economics, although it's often inconvenient. But so often, haven't you seen people making $5,000 a year and driving a car that costs $6,000? And they wonder why their ends never meet. That's a fact.

Now the economists also say that your house shouldn't cost—if you're buying a house, it shouldn't cost more than twice your income... Well, I've seen folk making $10,000, living in a $40- and $50,000 house. And you know they just barely make it. They get a check every month somewhere, and they owe all of that out before it comes in. Never have anything to put away for rainy days.

But now the problem is, it is the drum major instinct. And you know, you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. They got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better and a little better-looking than Mary's coat. And I got to drive this car because it's something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor's car. I know a man who used to live in a $35,000 house. And other people started building $35,000 houses, so he built a $75,000 house. And then somebody else built a $75,000 house, and he built a $100,000 house. And I don't know where he's going to end up if he's going to live his life trying to keep up with the Joneses.

He talks about how the drum major instinct can distort people's personalities if it's not harnessed: people who boast and puff themselves up, who lie and name-drop, who push others down to make themselves look better, who engage in criminal activities to get attention and feel important, who are snobbish and exclusive. Then he brings that back around to race:

Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first... And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man's inhumanity to man... [And] the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out...

He also talks about how it connects to foreign policy ("Nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. 'I must be first.' 'I must be supreme.' 'Our nation must rule the world.' And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.") Then finally he goes back to the Bible story he started with, where James and John were asking Jesus to sit at his right and left hand:

[Jesus] said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he finishes up by talking about himself:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long... Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

That idea of the drum-major instinct really hits home for me. I do very much want to be special, to be noteworthy, to be recognized. And I can see how that strong desire can be very problematic if it's not carefully watched and appropriately channeled. I can see where it causes me problems in non-financial ways, and even though I think I have it mostly in control regarding spending on myself, I think it probably has a bigger effect on my spending on friends and family than I'd like to admit. But I hope on the whole that I'm using it in more positive ways than negative ones.

What do you think? Was King on target here? Do you see the drum-major instinct at work in your finances or those of others around you?

1 comment:

PT said...

Very appropriate. Thanks for sharing that.