Friday, 4 January 2013

The consumer society is a consequence of freedom


Earnest folk - whether they are slightly puritanical "traditional conservatives" or frothing left-wing greens - tell us that the consumer society is wicked. This is either because it harms our souls or because - in some unspecified manner - in harms 'the planet'.

Well I've news for you both, the consumer society is here to stay just so long as we keep hold of the idea of liberty. I am reminded:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.  The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it.

Yet we hear always of production as the positive, pundits talk earnestly of exports as if they were more important than imports and of how we must work harder. We are enjoined to be more competitive - an utterly meaningless term. And all the while the greenies are urging us to 'consume less', to adopt a trajectory towards the rude hut and digging stick, away from the evil and sinful electrical society in which we live (and which we love).

But worst are those who would drag us back to protectionism, to industrial strategies and to a unionised labour force - to a less free society. These are the ones who fulfil the second half of the Adam Smith quote: the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.

It isn't. We live to consume, to enjoy the bounty that our world and our creativity has made for us. To condemn 'underemployment' as some sort of curse rather than realising that it means more time for other things is the summation of this obsession with work and production.

So we must produce so we might consume. We may get pleasure from that production. But it is not our purpose here...

...our purpose here is to have the best time and the most fun we can, To eat, drink, drive fast cars, smoke cheroots, bungee jump, jet ski, knit, paint, sing, drum and throw balls. Or just to sit on the bank in the sunshine watching the world around us.

This is the consumer society. And we have it because we are free.


1 comment:

Adam said...

Interesting article, as ever, Simon.

On one level I completely agree with you. Consumption is absolutely at the heart of a healthy society. Not only do we enjoy consumption, which of course is a good thing in its own right, but consumption also contributes to a growing economy and to technological improvements.

So yes, let's celebrate consumption.

However, I don't think concerns about what effects unfettered consumption might have on the planet can be as easily brushed aside as you seem to think. The fact is that we live on a planet with finite resources and a growing population. If we're not careful, we're going to run out of stuff and pump way too much C02 into the atmosphere.

Does that mean we have to restrict consumption? Absolutely not. But it does mean that we need to be a bit careful about what kinds of consumption are encouraged. We need to move to a more "weightless" pattern of consumption.

And the problem is that free markets are not very good at dealing with that sort of problem. I'm sure you're familiar with the concept of "the tragedy of the commons".

I'm pretty sure that at some point in the future we're going to be in a bit of a mess without some kind of government intervention. Obviously we don't want government to dictate what kind of consumption we can have and what kind we can't have, but some nudges towards a more weightless pattern -- perhaps with extra taxes for the most environmentally damaging forms and subsidies for the most environmentally friendly forms -- are going to be necessary.

If those kinds of government interventions can be done at a very broad level, I dare say the free market will take care of the rest.