Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is Consumerism a Sin?

Amitai Etzioni is right when he asserts in The New Republic that we are not going to restore confidence in the markets by increasing regulation. Link here.

As he argues, how can regulators regulate the billions of transactions that occur every day in the global marketplace? And once you set up a vast regulatory apparatus, what makes you think that it will function effectively and honestly?

Thus, Etzioni concludes that the lesson of the current financial crisis is that we have to behave better, to do the right thing.

So far; so good.

Not so good is his identification of the problem and his prescriptions for a solution. Etzioni believes that the crisis is a punishment for our sins. Especially, the sin of consumerism.

In his words: "As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs-- safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education-- it is not consumerism. But when the acquisition of goods and services is used to satisfying the higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism-- and consumerism becomes a social disease."

In Etzioni's minimalist world we would make do with less attractive clothing, less tasty food, less work ... and would be able to indulge more self-actualizing behavior.

Would his argument imply that a parent who wanted the best education for his or her child would be indulging the social disease of consumerism?

I am tempted to say that the mania for actualizing Self instead of working for the common good is what really got us into this mess in the first place.

Be that as it may, Etzioni's argument is based on faulty reasoning. No human being will ever accept a life where only his basic needs are satisfied.

Also, his formula omits two basic human needs: freedom and competition.

If we merely need nourishment, it does not matter which pasta we choose. If we merely need raiment why not have everyone walk around in the Mao suits that were in vogue during the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Human freedom is not limited to the ballot box and the blogosphere. Individuals exercise freedom every time they choose between Tide and All, between Ronzoni and Barilla, between Adidas and Nike. Are we now to judge the will to exercise economic freedom as a sin or a disease?

If you hop on Etzioni's line of thought you will eventually find yourself supporting government control of the marketplace. His is simply a stealth attack on capitalism.

Ezioni writes eloquently, and has done so for some time, about the virtue of social activity. Yet, precious little in his definition of basic human needs sees humans as fundamentally social beings.

Take clothing. In part, clothing has a utilitarian function. And yet, there is nothing especially utilitarian about the universal tendency to cover the genitals. The gesture identifies the person as a human, social being.

Ezioni imagines that we can do with shabbier clothing. He ignores that fact that dressing in a certain way identifies us as members of this or that social group.

You can denounce it all as superficial, but in a world where social mobility is the order of the day, where people are increasingly disconnected from their native communities, adopting a new style defines them as members of a new community.

Would it be better if everyone felt like a pariah, like an indefinite human unit.

Etzioni believes that if we all consumed less we would all work less and that this will be all to the better. He seems to want us to adopt the French model where the government dictates how many hours you can work and punishes anyone who exceeds his quota.

Here is yet another restriction on human freedom. Etzioni does not bother to mention that the policy has contributed to the chronically high unemployment that has bedeviled France for over a decade.

Finally, Etzioni does not seem to recognize that people do not merely work hard in order to acquire more goods-- that is a demeaning caricature-- but they work hard to succeed, and they want to succeed because true self-esteem can only by acquired through competition.

Once upon a time there was less competition. In a world where social boundaries were rigid and inviolate no one was working very hard to move up the status hierarchy.

In the old aristocratic order and in the Indian caste system, biology was your social destiny.
Do we really want to return to such a world?

I think that most of would prefer to strive mightily, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, to make our own way in the world.

Within society people who do nothing more than satisfy their basic needs belong to the lowest social class. Don'w we all believe that those who inhabit the lowest social class should be given the chance to gain a higher status... to say nothing of superior goods and services.

Surely, this is better and more just than attempting to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator.

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