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Consumerism: A Defense

October 27, 2000

You would think that smart intellectuals would realize that no such
animal as capitalism exists in the USA or anywhere else. In America we
have a welfare state, a highly regulated, even regimented economy, which,
admittedly, is relatively more free than the economies of other countries
around the globe but by no means as free with respect to trading goods and
services as capitalist theory would require.

But never mind. Those who never tire of trying to besmirch the system
keep calling what we have capitalism and then finding all that's
lamentable about it the fault of this non-existent but merely approximated
system.

Consider the review essay by social theorist Alan Wolfe, one of the most
prolific intellectual pundits in the country, in a recent issue of
The New
Republic
. Wolfe muses over the messages of six books, all of them aiming
to analyze what they regard as America's excessively consumerist
capitalist society.

It is taken to be axiomatic in all these books, as well as by the
reviewer, that in a society wherein consumers can pursue their ends by
means of relatively open--but by no means free--market transactions people
are impoverished when it comes to what they really ought to strive for,
namely, community, friendship, and spiritual values (though never making
clear just how these are to be understood and applied and what kind of
society could usher them in for us all).

In the end Wolfe likes none of the six treatments very much and ends by
asserting, without any clear analysis, his own criticisms of consumerism.

He tells us that

...no society can allow its members to pursue their taste for
goods to the point of excess, or look with indifference as
some are allowed to satisfy their indulgences while others
are not, and consider itself either a decent society or a just
society.

Exactly what this means is a bit hidden. Does a society do anything like
"allow its members" to do anything? Since societies do not do anything,
only its members do, who is to be in the position to allow the rest of the
members to do one or another thing?

Thus we may assume, given his recommendation, that what Wolfe is after is
some kind of legislation or regimentation, guided by the likes of him,
that dictates to people the extent to which they are "to pursue their
tastes for goods." The politicians, so guided, would set limits for us.
Just how these people would learn what those limits should be, for each
and every one of us, is a mystery no one has managed to solve.

Yet we
find that against even the mere shadow of free market capitalism, there is
a persistent call for some elite group to set limits. As if we all, those
who hit the markets and spend our money as we see fit, were little
children in need of the guidance of these insufferable paternalists, would
be nannies all.

Now this is not to say that everyone in a relatively free society spends
money wisely, nor again that everyone's priorities are unimpeachable.

And
yes, there can be inequalities of wealth that are somewhat
disturbing--although given how constrained our version of capitalism
really is, there is no credible evidence that such inequalities have much
to do with our society's capitalist elements. Judging by the far more
Draconian inequalities of power and wealth in societies that are even
farther from being capitalist than America, one may reasonably suppose
that capitalism itself is not really responsible for gross inequalities of
wealth.

Whatever the problems of people are in a relatively free market, be these
moral or economic, one thing seems certain enough: the last thing they
require is a political elite to set for them limits, to disallow them "to
pursue their taste for goods." Quite the opposite.
The less power some elite has, the more likely it is that people will be
pursuing goods with what they legitimately have to use in trade instead of
what they garner through political dealings. And that could be a very
good educator about excess in their lives.

This is just what Wolfe and Co. do not grasp. The moral education of
adults cannot be accomplished by regimentation--even children learn better
via good example. People who will behave as they should only because they
are forced to do it are unlikely to learn much. Instead they will grow
resentful, akin to those who deal in banned substances, and will be
strongly tempted to get more and more rebellious.

For it is human nature to find it offensive to have other human beings
ordering one about, forcing one to act this way and that. After all, who
are these but simply other people to treat one as their trained wild
animals? What gall do these people have to think of themselves as
authorized to "allow" this and "disallow" that?

The problem with many of these critics of even the halfway capitalism of
Western societies is that they really are utopians at heart, people who
want to reshape the world in their image and who refuse to accept that
free men and women will sometimes be imprudent, rash, even go to excess
"to pursue their taste for goods." The only sound remedy for such folly
is education, argument, persuasion, ostracism, and similar civilized means
of influence--certainly not the coercive alternatives Alan Wolfe and his
ilk would prefer.


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