‘Rampant consumerism’: Why the Archbishop of York is wrong
In every generation there is someone to denounce our preoccupation with “stuff” or material advancement. Yet in the minds of what economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls the ‘”High Liberal clerisy”, there is apparently something novel and profound about claiming that money isn’t everything. Whether it be the desire for a flashy new iPhone or a time-share in Florida, an alliance of religious leaders and anti-growth egalitarians regularly line up to decry materialism, individualism, and, in the words John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, “rampant consumerism”.
Some worry about the effect of growth and consumption on the environment, or on economic inequality. For others, it’s the sheer vulgarity of desire for stuff which perturbs – as evidenced by the backlash against the supposedly barbarous hordes fighting over flat-screen TVs on the shopping day ‘Black Friday’.
But in the public discourse, these views always come together in a predictable narrative: ever-rising demand for material things, and political obsession with GDP, have caused us to lose sight of what matters – community, family, and the duties we have to each other. In particular, the replacement over the past three decades of what Dr Sentamu calls the “solidaristic” state with one which leaves more room for markets is blamed for eroding those values and dehumanising the poor. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if we placed less emphasis on growth, and instead re-shaped an activist state to target other concerns?
No. Every single one of these claims and hopes are mistaken.
Material advances are crucial to our well-being. Just three centuries ago, average labourers earned just £2 a day in today’s money. Life was tough. Life expectancy at birth was 36. Most of the world was equivalent to the poorest parts of Bangladesh today. At that time it might have been considered materialistic to desire things that we now take for granted, such as central heating, decent sanitation and cheap clothes and food. Even in 1973, 2 million people in the UK lived without either an indoor toilet, a bath or hot running water.
It is therefore impossible to draw a line across 2015 and suggest that our material goals are satisfied and further consumption frivolous. Even Keynes recognised the folly of those who claim in each generation that we’ve reached the limits of progress and should simply be content with our lot. Is it ‘consumerist’ to desire the washing machine, the refrigerator, and the computer, which have all, in so many ways, enriched our lives? Few would wish to reverse these innovations, and the idea that their development – or desire for them – created an individualistic, materialistic culture which eroded social solidarity is difficult to imagine. Far from being frivolous, we can see with hindsight that they contributed to smashing the poverty and poor hygiene which had hitherto characterised all human history.
In fact, consumerism in itself is a crucial driver of the innovations that have improved the well-being of the poor. Their refusal to be satisfied with their lot created the conditions for labour-saving devices to take off, first here, and now elsewhere. As the economies of developing countries such as India and China have moved closer to the ‘market’ societies criticised by the clerisy, what Marx described as the “absolute desire for enrichment” has reduced poverty to a greater degree than any other economic system known to humankind. In two decades since 1990 the global rate of absolute poverty has halved. You’d be hard-pushed to think these results were somehow immoral.
But clergy in rich countries only see what they want to see. While denouncing the desire for expensive gadgets, they ignore how wealth is used for philanthropic and charitable causes – and all the future good that could come from consumer products, from “stuff”. We can imagine a world where new gadgets allow old people who are ill to stay with their families, monitored by devices rather than confined in hospital, or one where even the poorest can access the expertise of the world’s best teachers.
If the clerisy’s agenda was just an articulated distaste for the desire for possessions, it would be one thing. But their generalised denunciations of consumerism and growth in themselves are increasingly becoming a demand for new government action. In particular, many now suggest we should give up on ‘going for growth’ altogether, and instead embrace so-called “solidaristic” aims, such as reducing inequality. These are more commonly understood as “socialistic”.
This view is dangerous, and based on a falsehood. No government ever has had the aim of maximising GDP above all. Were they doing so, we would have much smaller government, huge tax cuts, no planning system, no carbon-reduction targets, legalised drugs, no immigration controls whatsoever and extremely limited regulation. Suggesting growth at all costs has been the mantra of recent governments is to erect a giant straw man. Every government recognises values beyond the market.
Yet it is precisely when governments pursue other aims that their actions detriment the poor whom the clerisy purport to represent. Planning restrictions have raised house prices. Green taxes have raised energy bills. Childcare regulations have made it much more expensive. Sin taxes have been jacked up. All of these regressive measures hit the poor hardest.
In any case, inequality is not a useful measure of anything. You can have more equality by having fewer rich people, but doing so does nothing to help reduce poverty – in fact, it worsens it. Living standards are what matters, and all the evidence shows they are far higher in free enterprise economies than in highly socialistic ones. Over time, their growth is faster, and their labour markets perform better. Compare unemployment rates here or in the US to Greece or Spain. Compare Chile’s growth over the past two decades to Venezuela’s. Compare China now to China two decades ago. Nor does a socialistic state guarantee social harmony; think of Britain in the 1970s, or Venezuela today.
Ironically for the clerisy, if anything is to blame for individualism and a dehumanisation of the poor, then it is the rise of the welfare state which they now want to strengthen. Whereas civil society institutions like friendly societies, trade unions and charitable organisations flourished prior to 1945, embedded in communities, the centralised bureaucratic welfare state has now usurped them. This state provides essential services irrespective of contribution and without reciprocity; it tells those in need to take a cheque and get on with it. This, too, drives consumerism: state provision of health, education and pensions means less need to save and more money spent in consumption of life’s luxuries.
Money may not be everything. Relationships, our conduct toward our fellow beings, and all the non-market actions we take to assist our friends and families are crucial to our well-being. But the desire for enrichment is a natural human ambition, and the best way to achieve it in future is to embrace precisely the values and economic liberty which enable robust economic growth – and which the anti-consumerist, anti-growth brigade lament. Conversely, a bigger state, and a turn away from growth, risks hurting the people the clerisy claim to support. It is very rarely those at the bottom of the pile who moan about an abundance of stuff.
This article first appeared in the Telegraph.