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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/4692/free-market-mass-society-bad/

Free Market = Mass Society = Bad?

February 15, 2006 by

I’ve started a discussion with a political science professor at my college, and I thought it might be helpful to get more views. (Now not only is this guy a colleague, but he’s also used Rothbard in one of his classes, so no spitballs please.) Below I’ve excerpted some things from his latest email, and then I give a quick response. This is the type of discussion that will probably be better if it’s short bursts back and forth, rather than long discourses.Nathan said:

I have in mind something like what Ropke fretted about in Chapter II of The Humane Economy, borrowing from Ortega y Gasset. I mean by the term “mass society” simply the social effects of mass production and consumption. The concept is difficult to describe more concisely, as it involves a rather complex chain of related events. Such effects would include the relative homogenization of tastes and attitudes (chain food, clothing, popular entertainment, etc. from cheaper goods and aggressive advertising); the disruption of family bonds as individuals are encouraged by businesses and marketers to pursue at all costs individual satisfaction (and these appeals often include manipulative appeals to lowest denominator tastes, sex and violence) ; the loss of true individuality and individual liberty – and thus responsibility – as individuals interior lives are increasingly shaped by market forces (cell phones, television, video games, advertising, etc.); I could go on…

A few quick points:

(1) The “free market” means nothing else than respect for property rights. It does not mean “unbridled commercialism” or “worship of mammon.” So at a basic level, I don’t see how refraining from violating people’s property rights leads to irresponsibility, breakdown of family, etc.

(2) I think the government plays a huge role in the undeniably obectionable features of modern society. E.g. I can’t think of a better way to foster homogeneity of thought and tastes than the so-called public school system or public ownership of the radio and television waves. And let us not forgot the institution of democracy itself–now there’s something that promotes mass society and undermines individual responsibility.

(3) To the extent that Wal-Mart caters to lower and middle-income people, I think that in a truly free market, Wal-Mart would not be as popular as it is now. In the present environment, Wal-Mart provides a wonderful service (in my opinion) because of its quality/price combination. But if I took home (literally) twice as much income because of the abolition of government “services,” then I probably would go to fancier shops etc. for a lot of my purchases.

{ 70 comments }

al February 17, 2006 at 5:33 am

Well, R. P., here’s the problem. Its been pointed out above, that the greatest minds of western civilization have identified some human goods beyond autonomy, namely, some that are common, and can only be pursued with others.

Most, when they hear about these goods, identify with and aspire to them, but it doesn’t take long to see that if such goods are common, then the state must be natural and indeed necessary to human flourishing.

The libertarian answer to this is to then circumscribe the human good, so as not to have to deal with the impetus behind a “natural state”, and when many remark that it seems a heavy price to pay for an absolute defense of autonomy to forgo these human goods (through things like the inability to proscribe depravity) the libertarian answer seems to be to put on tighter blinders.

This is not so much an argumentative position, as it seems like a developmental defect, like one of Piaget’s stages run amuk, where elements of reality intruding on a tightly circumscribed outlook, are treated with denial, and perhaps even reverse fetishism

quasibill February 17, 2006 at 8:12 am

“it seems a heavy price to pay for an absolute defense of autonomy to forgo these human goods ”

Nothing in libertarian thought forces you to forgo these human goods. You are free to pursue them. They only thing libertarian thought says about it is that you must pay for them if you want them. You may not force another to pay for your values.

Keith February 17, 2006 at 8:33 am

I’m reading all of these great terms: “good life”, “vulgar nation”, “vulgar consumer culture”, etc., but I’m not reading any definitions. Maybe its because there aren’t any. “Vulgar” compared to what? “Good life” compared to what? We’re just talking about opinions. Typically the opinions of people who are interested in controlling what other people think and do.

RachaelAnne said: “I think the point is, that as humans, we all have this ability to love, to enter meaningful friendships, to enjoy your your life, your family, and the community this all takes place in, etc., but that the yearning for trappings like titanium LG refridgerators can begin to take precedence. I think you’re confused if you say that placing importance on other people means transcending material issues. Concern for others can always come first, and ought to be viewed more as returning to the basics than taking moving forward to something new. An abundance of goods improves our lives, but love, friendship, grace–these are fundamentals of our lives.”

I’m not confused or saying that non-material things aren’t important. Many of these things are important to me. But if they weren’t, then how is it of any concern to you if it does not impact you. If I choose a titanium refrigerator over a work of art, what do you care. But that typically is the problem. There are too many people out there butting into what isn’t their business.

al said: “Its been pointed out above, that the greatest minds of western civilization have identified some human goods beyond autonomy, namely, some that are common, and can only be pursued with others.”

Wow. Talk about hubris.

Graeme Bird February 17, 2006 at 9:22 am

When the monetary hammer came down under Volcker the fortune 500 companies went backwards. But what emerged in the recovery was this explosion of entrepreneurship not seen anywhere else in the world.

This is one reason why I’m finding the Cato Institute version of Capitalism rather uninspiring. Its not the real deal unless its Growth Deflation. And under economic freedom, growth deflation and tax rates so very low there is nothing to write off against them this commercialism and the benevolent sovietism of the large average size of corporations is likely to wind down to a great degree.

There is work to be done here for a young Misean PHD aspirant. How the growth in the money supply effects the balance between large business progress and entrepreneurial startups. I think it swings things in favour of the established big businesses. But it would be good to nail this one down in a study that crosses time and space.

I think that’s one half of the issue we are talking about here. The other half being the purposeful creation of broadcast culture via not maxing out on the airwave potential when radio and TV were first put out there. A totally anti-capitalist policy.

Loudon is a Fool February 17, 2006 at 11:17 am

Keith,

“Vulgar” as used above means “common.” So it’s not used merely a value judgment but as something that can be observed (i.e., the tastes of the mob). So “vulgar consumer” is redundant, but two epithets are always better than one. In a nutshell, the “good life” consists in man fulfilling his nature, which causes happiness, and which can only be accomplished through the cultivation of virtue. So if cheap consumer goods result in less virtuous people, living the good life would be made more difficult. For them, and for the rest of us.

R.P. McCosker February 17, 2006 at 1:48 pm

al writes:

“Its been pointed out above, that the greatest minds of western civilization have identified some human goods beyond autonomy, namely, some that are common, and can only be pursued with others.”

That’s clear as mud. Did you study literary style with Theodor Adorno? (Cf. http://linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org/9912/writing.html .)

Let me take a wild stab at translating this: Do you mean that some cultural “goods” can only be achieved by people cooperatively working together?

If so, then, well, *duh*. Libertarians believe in people working together. *Voluntarily.* Yes, human cooperation is necessary for a great deal, including human survival itself. So is food. But neither cooperation or food require the coercive agency of government to come about. Indeed, government gets in the way of cooperative activity, just as it did food production and distribution in the old Soviet Union.

“Most, when they hear about these goods, identify with and aspire to them, but it doesn’t take long to see that if such goods are common, then the state must be natural and indeed necessary to human flourishing.”

More of the same incoherence. Sorry, I don’t see how this ties into the critique suggested by Nathan Schlueter.

“The libertarian answer to this is to then circumscribe the human good, so as not to have to deal with the impetus behind a ‘natural state’, and when many remark that it seems a heavy price to pay for an absolute defense of autonomy to forgo these human goods (through things like the inability to proscribe depravity) the libertarian answer seems to be to put on tighter blinders.”

Oh: *depravity*. Hmm, well, while depravity sounds like it would be a bad thing, I don’t have the kind of confidence you seem to that government is well situated to define the term satisfactorily, much less take just action to “proscribe” it. Does owning a copy of *Lady Chatterly’s Lover* constitute depravity? Should Frederick’s of Hollywood be shut down?

One needn’t be an anarchist to see that voluntary communities and personal responsibility for one’s situation would much more satisfactorily rein in the human propensity toward depravity than arbitrarily defined, clumsily enforced rules that the political class would seek to impose upon us.

“This is not so much an argumentative position, as it seems like a developmental defect, like one of Piaget’s stages run amuk, where elements of reality intruding on a tightly circumscribed outlook, are treated with denial, and perhaps even reverse fetishism”

Piaget’s stages. Denial. Oh, here’s a *really* good one: Reverse fetishism. Heck, why deal with the substance of argument when you can toss together some psychobabble to make a nice ad hominem salad?

Nathan Schlueter February 17, 2006 at 2:49 pm

There are many interesting (and a few humorous) remarks here, though I’m afraid things have gotten a little off track from the original question. I’ll try and bring some focus to the original posting (at risk of confusing things even more).

1. First my own definition of terms for future comments:
a. Anarchism: No Government.
b. Communitarianism: Government organized for the purpose of promoting one particular vision of the good life, which may or may not include the free market.
c. Liberalism: Government organized exclusively for the purpose of promoting either the free market or capitalist economies.
d. Capitalist Economy: An economy based upon perfect freedom of exchange.
e. Free Market Economy: An economy based upon freedom of exchange, more or less, within the context of government and rule of law. *Note: This is a mere description and does not by itself set the proper boundaries to freedom of exchange, which is part of the question before us.
f. Vice/Vicious: Actions and habits which are base, inhumane and contrary to the human good. A vicious person lacks freedom because their choices are uncontrollably dominated by passions rather than reason, as in the case of a heroin addict for example. Examples of vices would include lack of self-restraint, selfishness, greed, gluttony, lust, etc. (Notice I’ve said nothing about the role of coercive government here or following. I’m just giving a definition).
g. Virtue/Virtuous: Habits or actions that assist human flourishing by liberating the human will to choose well for one’s own happiness. The four cardinal ones are prudence, justice, moderation and courage.
h. Consumerism: The belief that the highest goal of life, to which all else is subject, is comfortable self-preservation.
i. Individualism: The result of an individual who lacks an inner capacity for real choice because such person is dominated by vice. Such person is controlled by the forces around him, rather than controlling those forces.
j. Individuality: The expression of an individual who has a perfect capacity for real choice because said person has virtue.

2. I believe two issues are being confused here: Anarchism and Capitalism. The first involves a conception of justice. The second involves a technique of economy. Anarchists claim that individuals (or groups of individuals) could choose, according to their individual value preferences, to live in any way they choose. This means that they could choose any technique of economy they choose, including socialism and communism, so long as the association is voluntary. One would be an Anarchist and hate capitalism. Conversely, one could love Capitalism and oppose Anarchism. We can debate the merits of capitalist economy and we can debate the merits of Anarchism but it’s important to keep the discussions distinct.

3. Let’s say that within a condition of Anarchy a group of consenting individuals set up a community ordered to their own conception of virtue. They want to live in a community insulated from what they regard as scum. This would also mean to the right to exclude members who refuse to abide by their rules, and to punish those who violate them while choosing to live there. Can such a community use its collective power coercively to ensure its way of life against wayward individuals within that community? (This includes rights of parents over their children).

4. Let’s assume another community within a condition of Anarchy which adopts a Capitalist Economy. I would argue that the Capitalist Economy, while admittedly providing many products with incomparable efficiency, at least initially, necessarily encourages Consumerism. Consumerism necessarily encourages Individualism. Individualism necessarily undermines the cultural supports and intermediary institutions (families, churches, etc.) necessary for individuals to even make rational choices. A society comprised of rootless individuals is a society fit for despotism of the worst kind.

As Robert Nisbet has observed, “it is the pulverizing of society into a sandheap of individual particles, each claiming natural rights, that makes the arrival of collectivist nationalism inevitable.”

Or Ropke: “Communism thrives wherever the humus of a well-founded social order and true community has been removed by proletarianization of social classes; it thrives where men, and intellectuals above all, have lost their roots and solidity and have been pried loose from the social fabric of the family, the succession of generations, neighborliness, and other true communities.”

It was Tocqueville’s genius to see that this process of fragmentation and disintegration could be the result of both deliberate national policy as well as of Capitalism, though the roots of the observation as I’ve already pointed out can be found in Smith himself.

5. Now let’s go back to the real world and assume we live under Liberalism. I see no principled reason why capitalism is necessarily the just default position, or why Communitarians may not use the existing instrumentalities of government power to promote their own vision of the good life. There is not a “neutral” position here. Either one pushes out the other, and in this case my choice is for the Free Market conditioned by Communitarianism.

Paul Edwards February 17, 2006 at 2:51 pm

“Oh: *depravity*. Hmm, well, while depravity sounds like it would be a bad thing, I don’t have the kind of confidence you seem to that government is well situated to define the term satisfactorily, much less take just action to “proscribe” it.”

LMAO: Good one. Well said. I think the state is far better situated to actually embrace and embody depravity in its own dastardly way, than to ever proscribe it.

quasibill February 17, 2006 at 3:01 pm

Well, I see two points that I would argue are fallacies:

“I would argue that the Capitalist Economy, while admittedly providing many products with incomparable efficiency, at least initially, necessarily encourages Consumerism.”

As someone posted earlier, inflationary monetary policy is truly the cause of what you call consumerism – it shortens people’s time preference. Of course, inflationary monetary policy can occur short term absent the state, but it is generally limited to short term until customers recognize the fraud. And as I noted earlier, the increased efficiency (absent the pressures caused by monetary inflation) will lead to increased leisure time in general, and therefore lead to more consideration of the virtues you mention. Absent the efficiency, there is less leisure time (for most people) and therefore less time to worry about non-survival issues.

“Consumerism necessarily encourages Individualism.”

I’d say no, in the absence of forced subsidization of your vicious behaviors. There is a feedback loop involved in all vicious behaviors, absent the state, as you will increasingly pay the price of them. And others will see what the result is, which will create tremendous social pressures to abstain, as well as rational decisionmaking to abstain.

Lucas February 17, 2006 at 3:34 pm

Prof. Schlueter (going back to your posts, and ignoring much of what has transpired here since),

I just have a few comments. But, before I begin, I’ll just post a disclaimer: I’m not particularly familiar with Ropke, though he is often identified as an Austrian… I still have too much Rothbard and Mises to catch up on! But, I think I have a decent (though still somewhat vague) idea about “enmassment”… So, I’ll try to pick up from there.

The basic question you pose is: given human nature and a free market, will enmassment (or at least commercialism) result?

There’s immediately a snag here, though. You haven’t laid out what your assumptions regarding human nature are. If you believe in a Hobbesian human nature, the answer will be quite different from if you believe in a Rousseauesque human nature. Or, even if we confine ourselves to Christian views of human nature (moving to territory I know better), there is a vast difference between the Arminian and Calvinist views. So, given the information you’ve given us, the answer is “No one knows”. And, trying to divine human nature purely from empirical observation is something along the lines of impossible. The data set is just too big, and there are too many social variables to control for (to use a statistical analogy) that sorting out pure “human nature” is daunting if we do it on empirical grounds.

CS Lewis did provide something of an answer, though, in his book Mere Christianity. He suggests that people have in common: an awareness of morality (and a vague agreement on some of the general principles, though there are some outliers here… Nietzsche, for example) and an awareness of one’s own moral imperfection. But, from an economist’s standpoing, his evidence was far too anecdotal to be satisfying. Personally, though, I think he’s basically right, so I’ll go with it.

Now, given this human nature, and private property rights, will commercialism/enmassment result? Not necessarily. If we assume that commercialism/enmassment is a “bad thing” (that is, it violates the shared moral sense that is common to human nature), then there will be a general sense that a commercialistic/enmassed society is “bad”, so there will be people trying to fight that tendency. So, a unanimous acceptance of the commercialistic/enmassed society would not occur. Or, it would only occur with a significant amount of guilt experienced by people… Which is, of course, possible. People knowingly decide to do the wrong thing a decent amount. So, it can’t be ruled out. But, it certainly doesn’t follow by logical necessity.

So, I’ll posit an alternative. A heterogeneous society. The only thing this society shares is a respect of other’s right to property. I’ll add another assumption about human nature: Humans are variously imperfect. That is to say, our moral imperfections are different. Some are murderers, some rapists, some thieves, some slanderers, some greedy, some promiscuous, etc. In a free market society, certain of these immoral will be deemed criminal (if they violate the property rights of others, including the right to one’s self). Others will not. These will persist. Odds are good that the varied moral senses will result in a certain degree of social separation (this may also result in geographical separation, but there’s no logical reason it would need to). So, those who are anti-promiscuous keep a certain social distance from the promiscuous. Gossipers love each others company, so they group together. Those that feel that charity is fundamental would likely group into private communes, or at least form joint organizations to do charitable work (The Salvation Army, perhaps?).

If you want a good book about what a pure free market society may look like read Hoppe’s “Democracy: The God that Failed”. His chapter on Conservatism and Libertarianism is quite good, and many of his other chapters also provide great examples of what society could look like.

My second point: Pointing out a problem without offering a solution is problematic (as you recognize). Now, I know that you believe a problem must be identified before a solution can be. But, I think that your logic is reversed. Think of it this way: How does one know a problem is, in fact, a problem? Ultimately, we only know this because we have some better situation in mind. The Way It Should Be. We then recognize that The Way It Is is different from The Way It Should Be. So, we identify the differences as “problems”. Now, technically, a solution is a plan for moving from The Way It Is to The Way It Should Be that doesn’t violate any fundamental rules about the nature of reality. So, yes, a solution could come after the problem is identified. (One problem with Economist Ethics is that it seems to get cut short at “Private Property Should Be Respected.” and, after that, it declares all states to be morally acceptable. This is tunnel-vision ethics at best.)

But, you haven’t even established for us that enmassment is actually a problem. So, naturally, you get some trite “Maybe that’s the way people want it. So what?” answers (especially given the narrow scope of “Economist Ethics”). The passage from Ropke you provide is a shadow of an argument for a more complete Way It Should Be, but it’s far from logically satisfying. It seems simply to list a set of things that are “good”, some of which are at odds with enmassment. Surely there’s some good foundation for this list other than the fact that a lot of smart people have suggested it as a good list.

But, then again, I’ve never found a good, purely logical argument for any full ethical system. Which is probably why I accept religious ethics as the only complete, valid form out there.

Finally, just to explain some of the “Ack! He’s a Socialist!” comments. In Austrian circles, we believe that there is no “3rd way”. There is the free market, and there is socialism. Everything else is just an unstable mixture of the two. So, when you question the unhindered free market, from our view, you are suggesting moving toward socialism. Does this make you a socialist? Eh, it depends which of us you talk to.

Just some thoughts. I hope they provide some food for further thought, or at least some insight into the response you’re getting here.

Paul Edwards February 17, 2006 at 4:13 pm

Hi Nathan,

I have some questions, and comments below,

Questions,
c. Liberalism: Government organized exclusively for the purpose of promoting either the free market or capitalist economies.

Q: do you have a definition for government? Are you talking about a coercive state, or a voluntary system of law, protection and enforcement? If you mean the former, then it can only result in a hampered market and some form of state capitalism. If the latter, now you’re talking!

d. Capitalist Economy: An economy based upon perfect freedom of exchange.
Q: Including perfect freedom from all forms of coercion, including state coercion?

e. Free Market Economy: An economy based upon freedom of exchange, more or less, within the context of government and rule of law. *Note: This is a mere description and does not by itself set the proper boundaries to freedom of exchange, which is part of the question before us.

Q: do you consider “government” and “rule of law” as implying the existence of a coercive state? If so, then your definition of free market economy is my definition of a hampered market.

Comments,
f. Vice/Vicious: Actions and habits which are base, inhumane and contrary to the human good. A vicious person lacks freedom because their choices are uncontrollably dominated by passions rather than reason, as in the case of a heroin addict for example. Examples of vices would include lack of self-restraint, selfishness, greed, gluttony, lust, etc. (Notice I’ve said nothing about the role of coercive government here or following. I’m just giving a definition).

C: sounds like human behavior we find typically more bothersome when we notice it in others than when we exhibit it ourselves. I do appreciate that you aren’t here advocating a coercive state be put in place to curb vice though.

i. Individualism: The result of an individual who lacks an inner capacity for real choice because such person is dominated by vice. Such person is controlled by the forces around him, rather than controlling those forces.
j. Individuality: The expression of an individual who has a perfect capacity for real choice because said person has virtue.

C: Doesn’t this strike you as potentially confusing? Individualism is very bad, individuality is very good. And the individual? A bit of both I guess?

3. Let’s say that within a condition of Anarchy a group of consenting individuals set up a community ordered to their own conception of virtue. They want to live in a community insulated from what they regard as scum. This would also mean to the right to exclude members who refuse to abide by their rules, and to punish those who violate them while choosing to live there. Can such a community use its collective power coercively to ensure its way of life against wayward individuals within that community? (This includes rights of parents over their children).

C: (In Libertarian Anarchy) A contract or covenant agreement violation or a property encroachment means this power could be used violently (not coercively). There is no problem with collective and community property protection (force/violence) provided it is non-coercive (not initiating violence/aggression), in fact that is practical. That means, it enforces contract and property rights, it does not infringe on them.

4. Let’s assume another community within a condition of Anarchy which adopts a Capitalist Economy. I would argue that the Capitalist Economy, while admittedly providing many products with incomparable efficiency, at least initially, necessarily encourages Consumerism. Consumerism necessarily encourages Individualism. Individualism necessarily undermines the cultural supports and intermediary institutions (families, churches, etc.) necessary for individuals to even make rational choices. A society comprised of rootless individuals is a society fit for despotism of the worst kind.

C: I would argue completely opposite. It would encourage individuality: respect for property and contract, far-sightedness, thrift, savings, self-sufficiency, family values, compassion, charity and spirituality. It would necessitate and enhance rationality and make difficult for ruthless demagogues to play on people’s natural flaws of envy and greed, which states and particularly social democracies and welfare states encourage.

“It was Tocqueville’s genius to see that this process of fragmentation and disintegration could be the result of both deliberate national policy as well as of Capitalism…”

C: Sounds like he was talking about state capitalism. I agree mixing the state with anything, including capitalism is recipe for disaster.

5. Now let’s go back to the real world and assume we live under Liberalism. I see no principled reason why capitalism is necessarily the just default position, or why Communitarians may not use the existing instrumentalities of government power to promote their own vision of the good life. There is not a “neutral” position here. Either one pushes out the other, and in this case my choice is for the Free Market conditioned by Communitarianism.

C: Your definition of liberalism necessitates capitalism and also by virtue of human nature: “Liberalism: Government organized exclusively for the purpose of promoting either the free market or capitalist economies.”

But further, the entire idea of liberty means freedom from coercion. That means freedom to work, produce, own, contract, trade, buy, sell, save and invest as one wishes without hindrance from some coercive entity. In liberty there is private property, and contract. Legitimate force is required to protect these two things. But coercion is a violation of them; it is the initiation of aggression against property or contract.

R.P. McCosker February 18, 2006 at 4:30 pm

The bottom line here is that Nathan Schlueter favors some amalgam of free markets and communitarianism.

Communitarianism was a left-of-center intellectual fad of the 1990s, sort of like “industrial policy” was in the ’80s. (The central theorists of both are mostly still around, but the intellectual Zeitgeist has moved to other projects.) In large measure, it deployed quasi-conservative rhetoric to justify social democracy and multiculturalism. (Cf. this critique by old-fashioned British Tory Roger Scruton: http://www.city-journal.org/html/6_4_communitarian.html .)

Frankly, I wasted too much time reading about communitarianism in the ’90s and have little urge to analyze Schlueter’s new wrinkle on it. The right kind of community is wonderful for most people, but the only just *and* practical way to get there is through the exercise of property rights and inter-human non-coercion. Pushing authoritarian laws and coercively funded spending programs are no ways to achieve the satisfactions of individually chosen community.

Private communities — cf. Hoppe’s writings for more details — would be able to have rules for admission and conduct, with their own set-ups for judging internal complaints. Such a community would be able to exercise rules against nonmarital sex, or establish just under what conditions marriage is recognized (separate marriage and State, please!), or not, or whatever. The social arrangements to work best to people’s satisfaction will prosper, the ones that don’t will wither.

Communitarians typically insinuate that they represent some third way between freedom and authoritarianism. They don’t. The choice is property rights and noncoercion, or the theft of those by others. Communitarianism is a rhetorical diversion from the central issues of political economy.

James February 18, 2006 at 6:15 pm

Prof. NS,

You believe that “free markets necessarily encourage consumerism.” Do you mean that this is a necessary truth? That seems like it would have to be the conclusion of a deductive argument. If so, what assumptions does this conclusion depend upon? Or are you you saying consumerism is very likely? If that’s the case, what would be sufficient to convince you that you are mistaken?

Do you believe that the problem of “mass society” is so severe that some people should be able to attenuate the property rights of others in order to correct it? If not, then we (loosely) disagree with you only in regards to the order in which we rank various ends, which is no big problem as far as I can see. If you do think the problem of “mass society” is severe enough to warrant the attenuation of property rights, please tell us why.

Re: communitarianism, I have a proposal for you. Gather a gaggle of your communitarian friends into your living room and suggest to them that you collectivise all of your present holdings and future income. Vote, or whatever else it is that you are into, amongst yourselves as to how these resources should be allocated. I’ve met many people who talk about how they like communitarianism but none who would actually do this. They seem to favor only versions of communitarianism where they and their friends can collectively expropriate involuntary participants. If you are an exception to this, you will be the first.

R.P. McCosker February 19, 2006 at 2:14 am

This last post reminds me how “consumerism” is one of those foggy terms that authoritarians use to rally against freedom.

Everybody consumes, of course — indeed, must consume somewhat to survive. Of course, people may use part of their resources to save or invest, but so far as I’ve observed the types who rail against “consumerism” are the types who also rail against lack of savings and investment among the citizenry.

Rather, anti-”consumerism” is understood to be cousin of what in the ’60s and ’70s was sometimes known as anti-materialism. Whereas anti-materialism was the belief that one should eschew money and physical possessions in favor of spiritual and interpersonal satisfactions, anti-consumerism presents itself as opposing the desire for and purchase of consumer goods, particularly those that are trendy, superfluous, or involve conspicuous spending.

I can personally relate to not wishing to engage in trendy, superfluous, or deliberately conspicuous spending, but the anti-consumerists differ from me by seeking to deter such spending habits via State coercion and denial of property rights. Significantly, the anti-consumerists tend to have their own consumer values — remember, they’re not particularly advocates of personal saving and investing — but want the State to deter the consumer habits of those they may regard as inferiors.

Anti-consumerists hate Hasbro and Mattel, but they favor “enlightened” toymakers like Brio and Hearthsong. Beauty spas and fat farms are frowned on, but New Age retreats like Esalen are the ultimate in vacations. Fashion-conscious high-heeled or athletic shoes are bad, but clogs and overpriced Birkenstocks are good. Cars are okay if they’re Volvos. And so on.

The objection isn’t really to nonessential consumption. Rather it’s the fact that most people don’t consume the way that anti-”consumerism” elites think they should. The masses are unsophisticated (they eat at fast-food franchises, watch sitcoms instead of reading good books) and take their cues more from Madison Avenue and Hollywood than from hip college towns (or, when this kind of critique comes from the Right, timeless styles such as one might find in L.L. Bean or Lehman’s catalogues).

The point isn’t what sorts of tastes are superior. The point is that the anti-consumerists are as consumerist as the consumerists. The anti-consumerists are only pretending to be that, when in fact they’re seeking to coercively institutionalize their own consumer tastes.

A more honest description is that they’re an educated elite who seek to impose their tastes on everyone. They don’t say that, of course, because in a democratic society the appearance of elitism is greatly to be avoided. They just decry “consumerism,” which reminds people of any aspect of the marketplace they find in bad taste, and use that to find new ways to expand government over everyone’s lives.

In sum, the term “consumerism” is used to evoke an insubstantial bogeyman designed to scare the public to turn over yet more of its freedom and wealth to the State.

R.P. McCosker February 19, 2006 at 2:20 am

Correction:

The third sentence should read, “Of course, people may use part of their resources to save or invest, but so far as I’ve observed the types who rail against ‘consumerism’ are *not* the types who also rail against lack of savings and investment among the citizenry.”

In other words, the second clause should have exactly the opposite meaning from the way I wrote it before. Sorry.

Graeme Bird February 19, 2006 at 5:16 am

“This last post reminds me how “consumerism” is one of those foggy terms that authoritarians use to rally against freedom.”

Proffessor Schlueter. I’m not suggesting that you are authoritarian. But do you think the above could be right. In that there are things about the current setup that are annoying and not how you’d (or I) would want them but that what might be bugging you might need to be better defined.

Until we can identify laserlike those several things that are perhaps not quite right about how things work currently we cannot say clearly whether they come from capitalism from interventionism or are inherent in the nature of things.

So it might not be ‘consumerism’ exactly that is the problem.

R.P. McCosker February 20, 2006 at 2:39 am

By the way, here are two Mises Daily Articles from the past that address the incompatibility of communitarianism with freedom:

http://mises.org/daily/241

http://mises.org/daily/1174

The latter of the two analyzes communitarians’ self-styled opposition to “commodification” — another buzz-word, like “consumerism”, that communitarians draw on to market their semantically disguised agenda of tyranny.

Geoffrey Allan Plauche February 23, 2006 at 11:32 am

Nathan,

You and Ropke seem to assume that it is the free market that naturally results in consumerism, in the creation of a mass culture, and the vulgarization of the tastes of the masses. But might it not be more correct to say that the tastes of the masses were already vulgar to begin with and the free market is just catering to them? You’re expecting the masses to somehow have the same refined tastes as the elites and well-educated in the old status-based societies. Maybe they can, someday, if this is even desirable, but it is too much to expect the masses to just suddenly evince refined tastes with the abolition of the ancien regime. Government intervention certainly isn’t helping in the raising up of the tastes of the masses, but I don’t think the market is responsible for the vulgarity. As for vice, I think that is largely attributed to the government as well…and one must also be careful not to impose one’s own personal tastes onto others as a moral imperative. I too think that human flourishing and virtue are objective, but they are also agent-relative and highly individualist and pluralistic. Conservatives have many pretentions about what is the Good, and it may indeed be good for them, but they then invalidly think that what is good for them must be good for everyone.

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