Consumers as guilty as capitalists

Published January 22, 2021, 10:05 AM

by Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas


Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas

(Part 1)

The unbridled search for profit by capitalists has been condemned by social reformers as a major cause of the prevalence of injustices in today’s modern societies.  There is an increasing plea in many societies today, whether developed or developing, that the maximization of profit in business should be tempered by more important goals of society, such as a more equitable distribution of income and wealth and a more sustainable environment.  The triple P — people, planet, and profit — should be considered in the difficult balancing act of attaining a more humane form of economic development.  The blame usually falls on a professor from the University of Chicago named Milton Friedman who was the advocate for an extreme form of free market economics.  He became famous (or notorious) by saying that the only business of business is to make a profit.

It must be pointed out, however, that it takes two to tango.  Business men represent only one side of the market, the supply side.  We must take into account also an extreme philosophy defending the rights of the consumers to live their lives as if maximum material satisfaction is the end-all and be-all of life.    Consumerism is the other side of the coin of liberal capitalism. As discussed in a series of notes from the MCC Library at Mandurah Catholic College, the term consumerism was first coined in 1960 to describe the prevailing social and economic order that encouraged the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.  Since the 1960s, consumerism has become a prevailing belief in Western societies with the development of television, mass advertising, and  brand marketing promoting the benefits of greater amounts of consumer goods and services. The more you possess material goods, the more fulfilled and happier you are supposed to be.

Consumerism is the belief that personal wellbeing and happiness depends to a very large extent on the level of personal consumption, particularly on the acquisition of material goods.  The more the happier has become the philosophy of life.

The belief is not simply that wellbeing depends upon a standard of living above some threshold, but that at the center of happiness is consumption and material possessions (accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, as Karl Marx mocked the sins of capitalism).  A consumerist society is one in which people is one in which people are obsessed with “consuming.”  Consumption is good and more consumption is even better.  The United States became the most famous example of a hyper-consumerist society as first described in a best-selling book called “The Affluent Society” by Harvard economist John Galbraith (who, I am proud to say, was one of my outstanding professors when I was pursuing my Ph.D. in economics at Harvard in the early 1960s.)

The desire for consumer goods and services with moderation is obviously not a moral evil in itself.  Some form of consumerism has without doubt led to the improvement in the quality of life of whole nations, with China as the most recent example of a country going from mass poverty to a more affluent society in less than three decades at the end of the last century (with the market reforms introduced by Deng Xiao Ping).

Consumerism (expressed through market mechanisms) has created a process by which people can access various goods and services that fulfil their basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter.  By helping people meet these needs, consumerism has improved the lives of hundreds  of  millions of people.  Consumerism has also helped boost innovation and creativity. Since consumers are constantly looking for the next best products/services  to purchase, producers/ manufacturers are always under pressure to innovate.  As consumers are provided with better goods/services, living standards improve.  Consumerism has also been praised for providing individuals with opportunities to develop their talents and uniqueness on both sides of the market, i.e., the producers and consumers.

Increasingly, however, the dark side of consumerism has been exposed by moral leaders, foremost of which was St. John Paul II who as pope wrote about the  evils of consumerism in the encyclical “Centesimus Annus.”  Treating material consumption as the primary goal of life — that is, focusing on “having” instead of “being” — is detrimental to human dignity.  It can be demonstrated that hyper-consumerism leads to less fulfilling and meaningful lives than does a less manically consumption-oriented lifestyle.

A good number of empirical research projects in the social sciences have shown that people are happier and more fulfilled when they are interested in the work they do, consider themselves useful to others, feel part of a community, and have more time with friends and family.  As someone quipped, “Nobody on their death bed ever says ‘Gee, I wish I had more toys and spent even less time with my spouse, my friends, and my kids.’ “Consumerism promotes the false message that material things can make a person happy.  It can also foster greed, envy, and even lust.

Pope Francis says it all:  “Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us.  We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect.  Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.  We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new.  Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it.  The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’ “

In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis describes consumerism as doubly damaging to the social fabric when it is combined with inequality.  Inequality inevitably engenders a violence, which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve.  It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.  Some even go to the extent of blaming the poor and poorer countries themselves for their troubles.

Finally, excessive consumption, especially by the rich countries, threatens the  earth’s environment, which is also morally unacceptable.  There is increasing scientific evidence that our planet simply is incapable of supporting American-style consumption everywhere.  Unfortunately,  through the tools of advertising and marketing (the “hidden persuaders”), the US has become the role model for all nations aspiring to become consumerist  societies.  In fact, there are signs that the biggest economy in the world, China, may outdo the US in adopting consumerism to the highest degree, since the vast majority of its citizens are really materialist at heart.

To be continued.