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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/5060/in-defense-of-consumerism/

In Defense of Consumerism

May 18, 2006 by

The beauty of the market economy, writes Lew Rockwell, is that it gives everyone a choice. For those people who prefer outhouses to indoor plumbing, pulling their teeth to dentistry, and eating nuts from trees rather than buying a can of Planters at Wal-Mart, they too have the right to choose that way of life. But don’t let them say that they are against “consumerism.” To live at all requires that we buy and sell. To be against commerce is to attack life itself. FULL ARTICLE

{ 27 comments }

N. Joseph Potts May 18, 2006 at 7:34 am

Both the Internet and home videos were powered “off the ground” (got their very first, and most-difficult) impetus as consumer commodities from people who wanted to see pornography and otherwise salacious material.

Since then, “better” uses (in the eyes of some) have been found and exploited on a scale that dwarfs that of the original market. But it remains that smut first put these things in our reach.

Andy Stedman May 18, 2006 at 7:54 am

Are you so sure that the “better” uses now dwarf the pr0n, Joe?

F L. Light May 18, 2006 at 8:03 am

Human in primacy free markets are,
Permitting fortune to no pillager.

Human in primacy free markets are,
Not brutishly disordered in a war.

The market is a populist where all
Appeasements to the multitude befall.

Unstinted markets, answering demand,
Against unruly politicians stand.

Stephen W. Carson May 18, 2006 at 8:56 am

I’m really glad to see this “consumerist” thing addressed. I’ve been hearing this from conservative Christian intellectuals for some years now. They pass it off as more or less a critique of materialism, which is a well recognized error among Christians in which material things become a sort of false god… As if the entire purpose of one’s life is to own iPods and drive expensive sports cars. The Biblical reference here would be a verse like:

“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:13)

But it seems to me that if what is being criticized is materialism then we should just use the word “materialism”. “Consumerism” definitely seems to carry some other baggage. It makes me suspicious that what precisely “consumerism” is supposed to be has remianed rather vague relative to a well understood term like “materialism”.

George Gaskell May 18, 2006 at 9:41 am

It is my impression that “consumerism” is something worse than “materialism,” a specialized subset of the broader materialism.

Consumerism implies that so-called consumer goods (i.e., portable objects) are a lower order of goods, when compared to, for example, big-ticket immovable and intangible items like land and houses and educations.

The point, as I see it, is to draw a distinction in social class — the middle class is painted as obsessed with accumulating a wide array of these lower-order consumer goods, whereas the upper-class pursuit of the higher-order immovable and intangible goods (land, houses, securities, etc.), while also materialistic, is somehow less objectionable.

So, I’d say that “consumerism” is a specialized form of the “materialism” accusation, designed to shift the emphasis a bit, in order to put a special stigma on certain classes of goods favored by the bourgeoisie. In that way, not only do they demean a certain class of goods, but they also demean a certain class of person as well.

Many academic intellectuals, most of whom are drawn from this bourgeois middle class, despise middle-class American culture. The term “consumerism” is thus an expression of this form of irrational animosity.

Steve Pilotte May 18, 2006 at 9:59 am

Consumerism is better thought of as a value neutral term. What about the consumption of goods and services by non producers, who finance their spending with credit they are unable or unwilling to pay back? That aspect of consumerism is not praiseworthy.

quasibill May 18, 2006 at 10:01 am

Although I think the term is infinitely malleable, as others have suggested, I actually see the perjorative “consumerism” as coming from an Austrian-friendly place.

Essentially, I see it as a critique of a high (I can never keep this straight, maybe I mean low) time preference culture. No savings. No thought of whether money spent on bling today wouldn’t be better saved for something more necessary tomorrow. Cheap, easy credit everywhere.

As I noted, not everyone who decries “consumerism” will agree with that formulation, but I think it is a background or subconscious starting point – people recognize that there is something not quite right about how things currently work.

Mamurjon May 18, 2006 at 12:07 pm

Sir,

Consuming is ok. You are fee to consume as much as you like – as long as you are living within your means, and not cutting into other people’s resources.

There comes the cause that makes consumerism bad – perpetual expansionary monetary policy that’s throwing the world economy into chaos so that American consumers can consume all they want (on debt).

So consuming is good, but consuming on debt, ever-increasing debt is BAD. get it?

You are looking only at a tip of an iceberg.

sincerely,

mamur

Marc May 18, 2006 at 1:00 pm

‘There’s no dog-eat-dog. Competition is really nothing but entrepreneurs and capitalists falling over themselves in a quest to win the hearts and minds of the consuming public.”

A nice ideal but untrue. Human nature says otherwise

loper May 18, 2006 at 4:01 pm

Isn’t it a bit of a strawman to imply that anyone is against “consumerism” ? Some people might be for conservation, but who is against “consumerism” but Ted Kaczynski.

Mark Plus May 18, 2006 at 6:17 pm

I detect conflicting messages from free-market advocates. Do you want us to save & invest every penny we can spare from our incomes for our own healthcare, old age and debility, so that you don’t have to pay taxes to supply us with those provisions? Or do you want us to throw a nonstop party now as we spend our income to accumulate more and more stuff?

George Gaskell May 18, 2006 at 6:50 pm

I can’t speak for all free-market advocates, but I want people to be free to make such decisions for themselves.

What you are describing is the differences that people have in their time preferences. Some people have generally longer time horizons than others. One’s time preference rate will change over the course of a lifetime. People often have different time preferences for different classes of goods. There is no one time preference rate that is objectively correct, much less correct for all people at all times as to all goods.

These variations are both inevitable and beyond forcible control. Statists tend to want to control such things for everybody, sometimes dictating unnaturally high time preference rates and sometimes unnaturally low ones. Like any other price-fixing, governments can never get it right. It’s not that they are incompetent (although they are). It’s just impossible.

Elassowipo May 18, 2006 at 11:14 pm

Things aren’t as clear-cut as the article makes them out to be. The evil of consumerism is not the abililty to buy what you want, but rather buying what you don’t want. After all, what is “want” anyway? And can we really find it in a world so full of brain-washing commercials, and societal and peer pressure? Don’t you know anyone who, during a time of reflection, uttered these words: “Why the hell did I waste my money on this crap”?
For many, their consumption has surpassed their wants. Thus, they have made it their new idol and now their only function in life is to serve it.
They are no longer people, but products of a society that strips life of all its meaning.
(Didn’t mean to get preachy… I actually don’t even believe in God…)

cynical May 19, 2006 at 3:25 am

Elassowipo,

That is pretty cynical. First of all, even if you didn’t know what you were doing and were always displeased to some degree with your own decisions, wouldn’t things turn out better than if others were choosing for you? Secondly, do you really think people buy things solely because of advertising, etc.? Wouldn’t that also mean that job advertisements would entice people to work at jobs that they don’t want to work at?

quasibill May 19, 2006 at 7:13 am

Mark Plus,

I agree with George that people should be free to set their own time preferences for goods. It’s the only rational way, besides the unquantifiable value of liberty attained, for such decisions to be made. How can a bureaucrat in D.C. know whether I need new sneakers, or whether I need just cheap-os or Nikes? There’s so much local information that needs to be assimilated that the very idea that someone hundreds of miles away could make the decision better than I can is simply ludicrous.

What I was noting was that our culture has changed in response to state interference in the credit market. The Fed has flooded our country with cheap credit for years, and along with certain other banking regulations and subsidized insurance this has made cheap easy credit a mainstay in our lives. Do you really think that absent government interference a freshman in college would get a $5,000.00 credit line? As it is, the credit card companies line up and set out tables every weekend at the local university, begging to give away cards to college students.

They wouldn’t be doing that if there were a stable money supply and they were forced to compete in an open market and they were allowed to suffer the full consequences of their foolish decisions to extend credit to risky applicants.

And if the credit cards dried up, people would be less prone to spend beyond their means. Not that it would stop entirely, but there would be less of a “buy now, worry later” attitude for most consumers.

Cynical,

“That is pretty cynical”

That actually made me spit my coffee out…

M E Hoffer May 19, 2006 at 7:44 am

quasi,

if he wouldn’t know, who would ? )

GG,

“I can’t speak for all free-market advocates, but I want people to be free to make such decisions for themselves.”

Given your proffessed view, why not speak for All free-market advocates?

Others, propounding a free-market, while wishing to hinder its participants, in any way, are, de facto, non compos mentis.

“governments can never get it right. It’s not that they are incompetent (although they are). It’s just impossible.”

Those, like the “Others” above, who attempt the impossible are, again, de facto, incompetent.

Remember well, the favor Goldwater did us, if not himself, when he reminded us; “Extremism in defence of Liberty, is no vice.”

Pulling the fangs, from a viper, makes it no less a snake.

I’m only suggesting that you are correct and to be without doubt.

George Gaskell May 19, 2006 at 8:41 am

I agree, Mr. Hoffer, but Mark Plus was asking for what the consensus of opinion is among self-described free market advocates. His question was less about the free market itself and more about the range of current opinion about the free market.

On that point, I really can’t say, since I have never taken or seen a poll of what others think. All I know is what I believe.

When one considers the variation among free-market advocates, we find that different people have different ideas of what constitutes a “free market.” Anytime you use a simple adjective to carry the weight of an entire body of ideas, the particulars can get lost in the noise. It’s like the phrases “due process” or “cruel and unusual punishment.” Simple adjectives like “due” or “cruel” are quite malleable. This variation among interpretations of the term “free market” is probably the reason that Mark Plus is hearing “conflicting messages” in the first place.

In contrast, when I am discussing the principles of the free market itself (as opposed to the range of opinion about the free market) I have no doubts.

Well, no more than I do about any area of scientific inquiry.

TGGP May 19, 2006 at 1:23 pm

I don’t trust anybody that says he speaks for me. And before you say anything, I’ve never claimed to speak for myself!

Francisco Torres May 22, 2006 at 4:02 pm

Elassowipo wrote:
Things aren’t as clear-cut as the article makes them out to be. The evil of consumerism is not the abililty to buy what you want, but rather buying what you don’t want. After all, what is “want” anyway?

Elassowipo, there is nothing inherently evil in buying stuff that you do not want, even if that is possible. A Want is a need to fulfill something; it is an entirely psychological state, only in our minds. It is that psychological state that enables us to form relationships and exchange of goods.


And can we really find it in a world so full of brain-washing commercials, and societal and peer pressure?

The problem here is that you give too much credit to commercials or peer pressure. Sure, the need to “belong” will push some to buy stuff that they may not have considered before, but it is still their choice, their decision. Commercials will not entice a person to buy anything: I have seen the cleverest commercials for pantyhose, yet I go by my business bare-legged (I am a guy, if you have not figured it by now).

Commercials and advertising have a very important social role: they allow people to KNOW their choices. It allows sellers to connect with buyers. As well, you are making a value judgment that drives you to arrive at unfair conclusions by a process called “selective bias”, where you see commercials and people buying stuff. Of course, you see the correlation, but you leave out the myriads out there that saw the same commercials and yet did not buy a single thing.


Don’t you know anyone who, during a time of reflection, uttered these words: “Why the hell did I waste my money on this crap”?

Plenty of times, but I have known people that are perfectly happy with the “crap” they bought. Again, you are making a value judgment on things that you may not find useful, but other might do. Remeber, value is SUBJECTIVE.


For many, their consumption has surpassed their wants. Thus, they have made it their new idol and now their only function in life is to serve it.

I believe you are exaggerating a little bit. I have known people who are compulsive buyers, but most of the persons I know are more careful buyers. Again, establishing what a person’s NEEDS ought to be is impossible, since wants are psychological, and thus UNIQUE to each mind.


They are no longer people, but products of a society that strips life of all its meaning.

I thing you are exaggerating again. People find meaning in MANY things, not just buying stuff. Besides, I think you are taking into account a few instances of people with deep psychological problems, instead of looking at the other billions that go to the market to buy those things in which they are interested and see if there are any new things to look.


(Didn’t mean to get preachy… I actually don’t even believe in God…)

I don’t believe in gods either. But that does not mean I believe people have replaced one religion for another: “consumerism”. That concept was invented by anti-market ideologues and busybodies who would like to see us riding bikes to work and wearing Mao suits.

Roger M May 22, 2006 at 5:18 pm

Like Stephen W. Carson, I’ve listened to the sermons from the religious left about the evils of consumerism for many years. You have to pay special attention over a long period to understand what the left means by consumerism. It’s a pregnant term for them and comes with some specific assumptions:

1. Capitalism is based on selfishness.
2. Capitalism requires an obsession with accumulating things.
3. Advertising drives the desire for accumulation.
4. Wealth is limited, so one can accumulate more only at the expense of another.

#1 is based on a misunderstanding of what Smith meant by “self-interest.” He did not mean selfishness, but that’s what the left believes. #2 is based on Keynes, who believed that consumption drives economies and should be promoted by the government instead of savings. Of course Keynes was flat out wrong.
#3 is a misplaced faith in the power of advertising. Most leftist writers take the claims of power made by advertising execs at face value instead of looking at real research, which would tell them that advertising can not make people by something they don’t want, nor create desires that conflict with basic values. #4 is just plain old mercantilism, which shows the left is about 400 years behind.

Elassowipo May 22, 2006 at 11:10 pm

I don’t really care for this nickname (what was I thinking?) but I’m going to reuse it for the sake of those trying to follow the debate.
Francisco, I understand your point of view, but I am in a totally different place, so my perspective is completely different from yours. Everything you said applies to fully formed, rational human beings. I don’t deny that. I just think they’re an “endangered species”.
What I mean is that everything we are, everything we believe, and everything we want comes from our experience. Today, as never before, the “PTB” (powers that be) can control what experiences you will have and thus what kind of person you will be. It’s called social engineering. Your wants are the predictable outcomes of the experiences you were allowed to have.
One might think he chooses Rap over Classical music, but that choice is an illusion. The kind of music he likes is almost entirely a function of the environment he was brought up in. Today, so many people experience the same things, at the same time in their developpement (kindergarten, school, first kiss at eleven and a half years old, second base at 13, first lay, first car, prom, college, fraternities, job interviews, 9 to 5, white fence, dog, mowing the lawn, etc.). The result is conformity the likes of which communist chinese can only dream of! Of course, all this is impossible to see when you’re “in the eye of the hurricane”, so to speak.
The blue pill is safe. Let’s all take it. Let’s pretend that choosing a Lexus over a BMW makes a difference. It matters. We matter. We’re not just coasting through a life layed out before us. We’re not puppets. We are beautiful and unique snowflakes. Each and every one of us.

Roger M May 23, 2006 at 8:49 am

Elassowippo–”What I mean is that everything we are, everything we believe, and everything we want comes from our experience.”

I can understand why you would think that. It’s the dominant philosophy of human nature in the Western world. It says we are born as empty vessels that society fills up; we’re not responsible for how we turn out because society made us the way we are. However, I urge you to look at other perspectives. A minority of us believe that we have free wills and can choose how we respond to experiences. For example, it’s widely believed that poverty causes crime, but if that’s true, why aren’t all poor people criminals instead of just a small minority? Put aside for a few days the abyssmal education you received and observe people around you. I think you’ll find we’re much less slaves of the culture than what you’ve been taught.

TGGP May 23, 2006 at 11:24 am

Elassowippo, I don’t think you have any idea what you’re talking about. Take just about any behavior, and you’ll find a larger variance in a more capitalist system then a communist one. Within people of the society/neighborhood/whatever you are going to different widely varying responses to the same advertisement. If you want to cite some study comparing nature v. nurture or whatever go ahead, but if you’re just going to rail against conformism and those awful masses have some information for us to back it up rather than your own upset feelings don’t expect for your view to make any headway.

Elassowipo May 23, 2006 at 12:32 pm

Roger, I don’t care what the dominant philosophy is anywhere. The views I hold are based on my own observations. Perhaps many people share similar views simply because they require the fewest leaps of faith. There’s no artificial construct such as having your will controlled by a higher power or DNA, or whatever. Perhaps others share such a belief because it’s the only one they were tought, but I make my own way.
Perhaps you are right in saying that we have free wills and that we choose how we respond to experiences. On some level, perhaps we do have a choice. Like, for instance, deciding if we are good or bad. But that’s completely irrelevant to our current discussion.
As consumers, our behavior is much more influenced by the environment than you care to admit. After all, I don’t think anyone was born to be a Denver Broncos fan, as opposed to a Dallas Cowboys fan. Their environment made that choice for them. Similarly, the choice between a Mercedes and a Ferrari is one that is offered to you by society, as well as the arguments that will sway your decision to one side or the other. Did people 200 years ago choose not to drive a Porsche to work? Did you choose not to fly by jetpack to work? Of course not. Ergo, as those were not then choices innate to the human condition, they are no more so today. They are societal choices. Society brings you the possibilities, but also the arguments in the form of marketing. The choice you make is entirely based on those arguments. Can that then be considered free choice?

Roger M May 23, 2006 at 2:58 pm

Elassowipo,
I thought the discussion was about how much influence society, or advertising, has on our choices. You wrote, for example, “Today, as never before, the “PTB” (powers that be) can control what experiences you will have and thus what kind of person you will be. It’s called social engineering.”

You also claim you came to this position by observation. So which is it? Do the PTB determine what you think, or are you free to determine it yourself? Does society force feed you your opinions? Or does your intellect, powers of reason and imagination enable you to interpret your experience and choose how you will respond?

Vince Daliessio May 23, 2006 at 5:21 pm

He Who Shall Not Be Nicknamed sez;

“One might think he chooses Rap over Classical music, but that choice is an illusion. The kind of music he likes is almost entirely a function of the environment he was brought up in. Today, so many people experience the same things, at the same time in their developpement (kindergarten, school, first kiss at eleven and a half years old, second base at 13, first lay, first car, prom, college, fraternities, job interviews, 9 to 5, white fence, dog, mowing the lawn, etc.). The result is conformity the likes of which communist chinese can only dream of! Of course, all this is impossible to see when you’re “in the eye of the hurricane”, so to speak.”

All of what you say is GENERALLY true, for the most part. But that is as useful to this argument as saying the average salary in the US is $50,000 – it is an observation that tells us little or nothing about the US economy or those individuals who labor within it, except obliquely. Sure, there are many people who earn exactly that salary, maybe enough to gull us into thinking we have the whole picture. We don’t.

If people want to be mindless consumers of goods, that is their right, regardless of their upbringing. It’s sad, it betrays a stunning lack of self- and other-awareness, and many may find it offensive. But it seems to work for them, so who am I to force them to live otherwise?

The evil thing here isn’t the libertarian-Misesian who wants people to have freedom from government control and influence over their financial, corporal, and spiritual lives, but those within and without government who would presume to tell others how they must live.

We love freedom here – so much so that we are willing to let all others be free, no matter what they do with their freedom, as long as they do not initiate force or fraud against others. They may do bland, unaesthetic, or other ‘evil’ and pernicious things with their freedom. But it is their RIGHT.

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