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.
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.
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Perhaps, but sinful people build sinful structures. This is the fact that Adam Smith, despite his Calvinism, ignored. Consumer, the emphasis on acquisition as the mark of our place in the world, is the consequence of sinful women and men trusting their own structures, including the market, and not putting their trust completely in God to provide. In a capitalist country, christians are called to combat sinfulness in the marketplace, including our own; in a socialist country, they are called to combat sinfulness in the collective.
My question is how Christians in a socialist country have the real freedom to combat the sinfulness of the system? Absent real freedom the government controls everything, or at least seeks to determine outcomes and limits the role of the person and kills initiative for change. In our system we can make choices, both personally and corporately, that make a difference. In a collective system this freedom is all but non-existent.
I like the distinction you make between consumerism and capitalism. I have often blurred the lines between these two, but it is clear that one is an attitude while the other is an economic system. Having one does not necessarily imply the other. As I have often said, poor people can be greedy and wealthy people can be generous. I believe this is why we who live in the wealthiest and freest country in the world have such a great responsibility to make good choices and to use our wealth for the betterment of the world.
In a very real sense, consumerism and capitalism are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Namely, the spending spectrum. Capitalism seeks to create wealth through the accumulation of CAPITAL, while consumerism seeks to satisfy desires through the acquisition of STUFF. Real estate, manufacturing plants, intellectual property, bonds, gold, etc. are generally the results of capitalistic investments, while cars (and their associated loans/ leases), game consoles, televisions, etc. are generally the results of consumeristic spending. From this perspective, any given dollar “invested” or “spent” is done so with a commitment to either capitalism or consumerism. Note that the two intersect (the spectrum wraps around to itself) when one seeks to build capital in order to have excess funds to buy stuff. As John highlights, a major difference between a capitalist system and most others is that FREEDOM is granted to individuals (and corporate bodies) to make such choices — sinfully or altruistically. Adam Smith did not ignore this reality, it was a feature of his view. As Galatians 5:1 reminds us, it is for freedom that we have been set free. Every system is subject to sinful lusts (cf. corruption within socialist regimes, oppression within collective orders). Capitalism provides a system in which individuals are free to act naturally — to exercise their sin nature and/or the leadings of the Holy Spirit. As Adam Smith pointed out, the inherent checks and balances of capitalism tend to make room for the latter while mitigating the oppression of the former. Capitalism does not adequately prevent rampant consumerism when key aspects such as the accountability for repaying loans (cf. the failure of America to internalize these costs today). No system is perfect. God can be glorified in any and man can / will be sinful in each. Still, an open market lays bare these truths in ways that allow for the Gospel to be seen and heard. Most other systems demand a culture that squelches.
Said simply: YES, Economic freedom leads to consumerism when the is a failure to internalize the opportunity cost of choosing to spend versus invest. In a fairly Christian society, the resident Holy Spirit often serves to mitigate this risk. In a post-Christian culture, man’s sin nature and mob mentality permits — nay encourages — this failure, as each individual revels in granting everyone (and thereby oneself) the right to avoid this cost internalization.
Christians in socialist countries often have a black market available to some degree to help combat the sinfulness of the system.
Thank you for your post, John. I am sure there is much more you could say here. In fact, I was just getting warmed up when the article concluded! 😉
Seems to me that FREEDOM always entails risks. Didn’t the Apostle Paul strain at making this clear – asserting our freedom in Christ while also warning about its potential abuse?
In recent years I have been taken aback that brethren who joyously embrace freedom under Christ, can then turn 180 degrees to cry out against freedom in economic and political spheres.