Along with ‘exploitation,’ the word ‘consumerism’ is one of the most abused words when trying to pin down what’s wrong with modern society. It’s the refuge of the intellectually lazy, and makes for a bad combo with compassion.
When you label a certain community as ‘consumerist,’ it’s so easy to be careless in prescribing a cure. Look at all those new gadgets, new car models, instant-gratification entertainment, junk food, etc. which come about in a market. No one is ever satisfied with what material goods they acquire! All the while, there remain the hungry and uneducated. The solution? Impair the market!
I don’t blame anyone who thinks in such a way. If I had never studied Austrian economics and philosophy, I would speak in the same fashion. It’s simplistic and easy to carry around in the head.
What is meant anyway?
But what exactly is lamentable with consumerism? And is it responsible to lump this with a money-based economy where people engage in trade according to mutual benefit? That is, does it follow that, barring any impediments to exchange between two free parties, the satisfaction sought will be superficial and wasteful?
Considering that most of our interactions do not involve money but are nonetheless exchanges of sorts, e.g. exchange of ideas in conversation, can we stretch the idea of rotten consumerism to include all our dealings in society?
But at this point, it is quite obvious that consumerism does not necessarily follow in exchanges between two parties, even those involving money (ugh, such a dirty word, keep me away from it). If so, any prescriptions to resolve such a hypothetical problem, including and not limited to legislation, are doomed to promote this nebulous notion once carelessly labeled.
Boo to the state
Let’s consider the political ‘solution’ a bit longer. It is assumed that the fight against ‘corporate greed’ would involve empowering the people against these companies that make money off of them by unleashing the worst in them.
But how would distorting the consumer preferences that make possible the profits of those who ‘exploit’ such preferences, make for smarter, healthier choices? A mere hindrance to choice couldn’t do that. The only thing that could happen is that whatever greed and superficiality exist in a populace will take a more monopolized form for the satisfaction of a narrower group of consumers, that is, politicians and their cronies, to the detriment of the masses, who are no more ‘refined’ for it. So scratch the government from the list of possible solutions to consumerism.
So far, we’ve seen that consumerism is not equal to markets, and that political control is not a counteraction against it. What better understanding can we get than this?
It’s all about timeframes
I propose that what we are so quick to label ‘consumerism’ is actually action based on short-term thinking, akin to savages who seek pleasure now with little care for the future, and for this purpose engage in base things that are unsustainable in the long term.
At the end of the day, it’s all about maintaining satisfaction. Whatever satisfaction is gained from the constant chase of the new, is no satisfaction really. It gets old pretty quick, or at least, the ‘fix’ that one gets from such acquisitions does not provide fulfillment.
And the emptiness of a short-term mentality is seen not just in what people buy, but in their attitude to each other, to society as a whole.
When your idea of charity is to course things through monopolistic, vertical structures, rather than acknowledging the capacity of others to care of their own free will, you engage not only in self-righteous conceit and snobbery, but in intellectual error. Of course, the advantage of being wrong is never realizing what harm you’re doing to the world along with everyone else who believes that a state could paradoxically be more compassionate than the people it supposedly represents, so your conscience is clear.
The recognition of market cooperation as precisely the solution to the limited capacity of individuals to determine what is best for one another, itself promotes the long term. And this will also be reflected in healthier thinking and refined tastes, including of the proletariat.
And by the way, the very act of recklessly crying out ‘Consumerism!’ as a substitute for clear thinking is itself an indication of short-term thinking. Watch yourself!
But what about… ?
There are dozens of ‘But what about…?’s to the ‘revelation’ that markets are the only hope to transcend consumerist thinking. There would be continued concerns of “How are workers’ rights protected in a dog-eat-dog world?” or “What if someone was left out in the cold with no one to turn to?” All I can say in these few remaining lines is that the state has never enabled people in a way that markets weren’t able to, and it is likely that whatever problems exist that elicit fear of the market are caused by prior government intervention in the guise of ‘capitalism.’