Does Economic Freedom Lead to Consumerism?

John ArmstrongBusiness, Economy/Economics, Wealth

A number of false conclusions are drawn by focusing only on outcomes. A common one focuses on the dangers of free markets and an open economy. Critics, especially earnest Christian critics, often attack economic freedom and capitalism based upon the very real dangers of consumerism. This association between markets and consumerism is so common that it often goes unchallenged. I hear it almost daily. But is the connection between free market capitalism and consumerism correct? Does opposition to consumerism, which is clearly a rampant problem in the church in the West, obligate one to oppose markets and growing a (global) business? Keep in mind, before you leap into this debate, that you should always ask a few questions before you leap.

globe_and_money The first question should be obvious? What exactly is consumerism? So far as I can tell the term "consumerism" was first used in 1915 to refer to the "advocacy of the rights and interests of consumers" (Oxford English Dictionary). But this is not the common way most modern writers use the term.  Consumerism refers rather to the sense that was first used in 1960 when the word referred to an "emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods" (Oxford English Dictionary). In the light of the following texts I think we should oppose consumerism, or preoccupation with goods:

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

“Try to be content with essential food and clothing. If you are attached to riches, you can be trapped by senseless desires” (1 Timothy 6:8-10).

Jesus enjoyed the good things of life such as friendship, food, wine and even a cushion under his head. He lived a non-possessive (simple) life. He was unusually detached from family, friends and material things. But the reasons are deeply rooted in who he was and why he came to live and die.

At the same time it seems apparent that more than a few of the faithful, in both the Old and New Testament, were wealthy. The point here is that you can be wealthy and detached from stuff at the same time, though Jesus clearly says it is very difficult. This is why you must “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15). The sin is not in having things but in being owned and controlled by the things you possess. This gets very close to what consumerism really is when our definition is clear. A consumer, as the more recent definition says, is preoccupied with acquisition! You can have wealth but not be preoccupied with it. In fact, some of the finest Christian benefactors in history have been extremely wealthy. Monasteries, colleges and hospitals have all been built because of Christian wealth.

The problem here needs sharper and clearer definition if the followers of Christ are to live well in the West. Consumerism has become a dominant ideology in Western culture. Seeking and having more is a reason to live for many, many people. “Born to shop” creates a few smiles but it is a terrible thing to admit!

The aim of Christian teaching is to help the followers of Christ think through an issue like this one critically. What is the relationship between the church and culture at this point? This leads to a number of other pertinent questions:

1. Does the church build and develop along consumerist lines?

2. Do we imitate consumerism in the way we present the gospel?

3. Have we been clear about the discipleship of all of life or just about private, spiritual concerns?

4. What public policy best serves the true enrichment of our neighbors? (This is one for considerable debate and Christians can legitimately disagree about this and should keep talking and listening.)

I believe we moved, especially in the post-World War II era, from a more healthy form of capitalism to a morally uncontrolled consumerism. Because of this shift in our culture arguments are made today for consumerism that should be challenged. But in the process we should not attack economic freedom through good intentions that are wrongly based.