There’s a war in this country between people in love with consumerism and those who seem dead set on stopping it. I’m a conscientious objector in that war, because I’m not on either side. I defend the right of people to be as shallow and materialistic as they want to be, but it doesn’t mean I like it.
Few things symbolize our consumer culture the way the Christmas buying season does, and the focal point of that season seems to be the traditional opening — the day after Thanksgiving that we’ve come to call Black Friday.
Three days ago, I wrote about the efforts of anti-consumer activists — who I’d say are downright socialist in their orientation — to stop people from buying from major companies on Black Friday this year. The people waiting in line for a Black Friday sale here Thursday night certainly didn’t believe that big companies were dictating anything to them. It’s when I look at these two groups — the materialist-oriented throngs of shoppers on one side and the anti-consumerist socialist activists on the other — that I realize just how ambivalent I really am about this. I don’t like or agree with either side.
I believe individuals and companies have the right to interact with each other however they want to, as long as they don’t ask me to subsidize what they’re doing. If people want to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on consumer goods which have no long-term value, that’s their right. If companies want to cater to the shallow materialism of the crowds, that’s their right, too. I’ll oppose anyone who tries to set up legal barriers to those people trading as they please. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to feel queasy about what I see, and it doesn’t mean I’m not going to encourage people to re-examine their values.
For many people I know, accumulating things has become a religion and shopping has become a sport. Consumption and “shopping addiction” have become standard parts of our culture. Retailers love consumption because it puts money into their pockets. Manufacturers love it because it creates markets for junk that will have to be replaced frequently. Governments love it because it produces sales tax revenue and and gives people the feeling that their standard of living is better. So what’s not to like?
Ever since John Maynard Keynes postulated during the 1930s that individuals saving money was a bad thing, we’ve seen more and more policies that push people to consume. Business, labor and government all see something positive in it for them. But what if it’s doing long-term damage to the economy? And, what’s worse, what if it’s causing people to value the wrong things?
There was a time when people consumed less and saved more. When bad economic times hit, they had more of a financial cushion to protect themselves. Not everybody saved, but the savings rate was higher and thrift was more highly valued. Today, people tend to spend everything they can bring in, with many living paycheck to paycheck — or close to it — instead of providing for bad times. What does this do? It greatly increases the percentage of people who are desperate when bad economic times inevitably hit — and this creates a huge cry for government to “do something” to somehow save people who have come to believe they don’t need to save themselves.
But even when the economy is booming, I think there’s a price to be paid. Instead of valuing relationships and service, people come to value the little plastic lives they build around themselves. They build lives that look prosperous from the outside, but which are hollow and have very little meaning on the inside. (As a Christian, I’m especially bothered when fellow Christians do this. In many ways, many in the modern church have ended up living in ways that are indistinguishable from the rest of the world — and many have forgotten that Jesus called us to follow Him, not necessarily to pursue the American Dream.)
I’m not going to try to take away people’s right to live this way and I’m not going to seek to use political action to stop it. (I do want governments to quit pursuing policies that subsidize the behavior, but since I want the state to go away anyway, that’s sort of a side point.) At the same time, I’m going to encourage people to be more thoughtful about their spending. I’m not suggesting that we all ought to live like monks and wear sackcloth, but I certainly am suggesting that much of what we spend today is absolutely wasted.
I’m not sure how to make the anti-materialist argument without coming across like someone who wants to use the law to stop people from making choices. I’m certainly not going to pursue the tactics used by Adbusters or the groups trying to hurt big companies by getting people to stop shopping there. I’m not sure how to defend the rights of people to make their own choices without sounding as though I’m encouraging people to spend money like crazy. I’m certainly not going to encourage you to go spend money just to counter the other side, as the Tea Party groups did over the weekend with their “BUYcott Black Friday” campaign. You don’t have to be on either of those sides. It’s OK to opt out of their fight.
I’d like to believe that people can cut back on their consumption, save their own money to be better prepared for hard times and be thoughtful about their own values — shifting value to family, service to others, and relationships. You can’t do those things when you’re shopping like a maniac. You also can’t do those things responsibly by trying to take people’s freedom away. Examining your values — and making changes if you believe they’re warranted — is a personal choice.
I hope you’re willing to examine what you’re spending and cut back if what you’re spending doesn’t honestly reflect your personal values. If you don’t do it, though, I’m not going to support efforts to force you to make the choices I would prefer for you.