19 March, 2020

Consumer Choice and Society


Those who like to celebrate the contemporary capitalist economy frequently do so in terms of choice. Some are quite open that it is consumer choice that excites them, the ability to pick and choose among an immense variety of products, according to one's whims and desires. Others, more conscious of the shallowness implicit in reducing man to simply a consumer of goods, are wont to point out that even though our society itself may be preoccupied with material possessions, we ourselves as individuals are free to occupy ourselves with better things, with cultural or spiritual goods, for example.  While of course this is true, one might wonder why so few people seem to manifest much interest in these latter types of goods. But perhaps the real problem here is the attempt to reduce human choice solely to the individual level. It is true, of course, that individuals do have the freedom to choose. Our wills were created by God to desire goods, but we have the freedom to choose among goods, to choose appropriately or not, to make choices that do not interfere with the attainment of our eternal salvation, or that make this more difficult or even impossible to attain. This does not mean, of course, that we must always choose the highest goods; rather, as the collect for the Third Sunday after Pentecost in the traditional Roman rite puts it, in such a balanced way, that "we may make use of [transeamus] temporal goods so as not to loose eternal goods."

But there is much more to say here than simply to exhort one another to make good choices. For we exist not merely as individual choice-making consumers - even when our choices might be of the most laudable kind - but as members of society, and as such, invariably influenced by that greater social whole. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, St. John Paul II offered a penetrating discussion of the connection between individual choice and the society or culture around us. He wrote (in section 36)
The manner in which new needs arise and are defined is always marked by a more or less appropriate concept of the human person and of the person's true good. A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. It is here that the phenomenon of consumerism arises. In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of the person which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones. If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to human instincts...then consumer attitudes and lifestyles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to the person's physical and spiritual health. Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities.
Here John Paul makes clear the connection between individual choice and the concept or picture of human good which a culture projects. Consumerism is not simply bad choices made by consuming individuals, for these bad choices do not occur in a vacuum. They presuppose the fundamental things that a society values, what it produces and what it teaches about human needs and goods. John Paul notes four matters that require attention, "the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities." For now, let us focus on just one of these, "the formation of a strong sense of responsibility...among people in the mass media."

Here advertising immediately comes to mind, and it is surely one of the most potent methods of teaching that any society makes use of. Advertising rarely teaches by precept, but more subtly creates illusions as to what is a good or satisfying or exciting life, and what products are necessary to share in such a life. It is not simply the promotion of a particular product, rather it is generally the promotion of "artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality," for the sake of convincing the public to buy new products or new kinds of products.

It is true that the ability of advertising to influence consumer choice is not unlimited. There have been notable instances of marketing failures because of consumer resistance. But I do not think that anyone looking honestly at our economy today could fail to see that for the most part it is characterized by "artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality," which convince people that happiness is to be found in the possession of more gadgets or of some particular gadget.

However, it is not simply by advertising that the mass media influence culture and public opinion. The media as a whole present an image of "consumer attitudes and lifestyles" that, more often than not, "are objectively improper and often damaging to the person's physical and spiritual health." They do this by the contents of their shows, certainly, but equally as much by the very images they offer, of apparently successful and happy people, and even by the news items they focus on and the way they analyze news events.

In response to this John Paul rightly highlights the need for "educational and cultural work," the formation of a strong public recognition of man's true good and, on the other hand, awareness of those false goods which directly appeal to human instincts and fail to subordinate our "material and instinctive dimensions to [our] interior and spiritual ones." In this connection both the Church and educational institutions at all levels can play an important part. But he also notes "the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers..., as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities." Here we can ask if the very structure of economic life can contribute to the correct formation or to the deformation of our understanding of the human person. In considering this, if we recall the definition of capitalism offered by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, as "that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production" (sect. 100), we might begin to see why a society's ordering of its economy has profound implications for its cultural, intellectual and spiritual health.

Under capitalism, when separation of ownership and work is the norm, there exists a class of persons, the owners of capital, for whom the economy is not so much a way of supplying mankind with truly necessary and useful products, with real means of satisfying genuine human needs, as it is of making and selling anything that people can be persuaded to buy, of working to create "artificial new needs" in order to promote sales of their products. Hilaire Belloc explained this in a striking passage.
But wealth obtained indirectly as profit out of other men's work, or by process of exchange, becomes a thing abstracted from the process of production. As the interest of a man in things diminishes, his interest in abstract wealth - money - increases. The man who makes a table or grows a crop makes the success of the crop or the table a test of excellence. The intermediary who buys and sells the crop or the table is not concerned with the goodness of table or crop, but with the profit he makes between their purchase and sale. In a productive society the superiority of the things produced is the measure of success: in a Commercial society the amount of wealth accumulated by the dealer is the measure of success. [1]
The small producer is intimately connected with his product, and generally has some interest or pride in workmanship beyond simply how much money he can make. But necessarily those who are one or more steps removed from the productive process will tend to look at their product as simply something to be sold, and sold not necessarily because it is necessary or useful, but because advertising can persuade people to buy it. Under capitalism, "the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers" will be unusual, because the cultural climate will focus on "the amount of wealth accumulated," not on the inherent quality of the product or service.

St. John Paul notes also "the necessary intervention by public authorities." In many people's minds, this raises the specter of a Soviet-style command economy. But this is a groundless fear. Any type of economy requires a legal system to support it. Capitalism, as much as any other, both shapes the legal environment and depends upon it for structure and support. For example, were it not for the unprecedented powers and rights given to corporations by courts and legislatures since the second half of the 19th century, advanced capitalism could hardly exist. None of this was inevitable, however, but rather the result of corporate influence over government and the general cultural attitudes endemic to a commercial or consumer society.

But a legal system could also work in favor of a distributist economy, an economy characterized, as much as is feasible, by a joining of ownership and work, private ownership for the most part, but private ownership of such a kind that producers are generally interested in more than how much money they can make. "The man who makes a table or grows a crop makes the success of the crop or the table a test of excellence." Of course he needs and expects to make a sufficient return on his work to support himself and his family, but the ever-present connection with real work and real products tends in the opposite direction from the capitalist separation of ownership and work. Moreover, we should note that ownership in a distributist economy need not be individual proprietorships, but can be employee cooperatives. Such cooperatives will generally be necessary for production which requires large-scale machinery or large capital investment.

Of course, due to our First Parents fall into sin, distributist owners will also be affected by greed, by a temptation to cut corners, and so on. This is part of the human condition. But there is a huge difference between a system which facilitates greed, which promotes a desire to cut corners and defraud customers, and a system that does not encourage such evils. Capitalism promotes sin, distributism does not.

Right now the power of capitalists, particularly as embodied in corporations, is overwhelming. For the most part, distributism must manifest itself in nooks and crannies of the economy. We should seek these out and help them to grow. But there is another thing we can do: we can refuse to allow the culture of capitalism of colonize our minds. We can reject "new needs and new means to meet them" which are not "guided by a comprehensive picture of the person which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones." We can distinguish in our own thought and life "new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality." We can thus carry out, in our own minds, in our own families and among our own friends and acquaintances, some of the necessary "educational and cultural work" that John Paul calls for. In short, we can take small steps to break down the oppressive ideology of consumerism which surrounds us and live in the freedom of that truth which can set us free.

Notes:
[1] An Essay on the Nature of Contemporary England (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) p. 67.


Title photograph by Downtowngal


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