“Consumerism” came up in my recent interview with Elle Griffin of The Post. Here’s what I had to say (off the cuff):

I have to admit, I’ve never 100% understood what “consumerism” is, or what it’s supposed to be. I have the general sense of what people are gesturing at, but it feels like a fake term to me. We’ve always been consumers, every living organism is a consumer. Humans, just like all animals, have always been consumers. It’s just that, the way it used to be, we didn’t consume very much. Now we’re more productive, we produce more, we consume more, we’re just doing the same thing, only more and better….

The term consumerism gets used as if consumption is something bad. I can understand that, people can get too caught up in things in consumption that doesn’t really matter. But I feel like that’s such a tiny portion. If you want to tell the story of the last 100, 200 years, people getting wrapped up in consumption that doesn’t really matter is such a tiny fraction of the story…. Compared to all of the consumption that really does matter and made people’s lives so much better. I’m hesitant to even acknowledge or use the term. I’m a little skeptical of any use of the concept of consumerism….

Any consumption that actually buys us something that we care about, even convenience, or saving small amounts of time, is not a waste. It’s used to generate value that is not wasted. It is spent on making our lives better. Are some of those things frivolous? Certainly, but what’s the matter with frivolous uses? Tiny conveniences add up. They accumulate over time to be something that is actually really substantial. When you accumulate little 1% and 0.5% improvements and time savings, before you know it you’ve you’ve saved half of your time. You’ve doubled the amount of resources that you now have as an individual to go for the things that you really want and care about.

Can you steelman “consumerism” for me?

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Consumers, in the "consumerism" worldview exist only to receive goods. It's a primarily self-centered orientation to the world, and that's why people sneer the word with such a moralizing tone.

Imagine the opposite of consumerism is producerism. Producing time-saving conveniences, building stuff, retaining walls and, heck, even trivial trinkets. Producing is a "nice thing to do." An active life working and valuing the things you wished you valued while helping others in the small, tedious ways that the economy rewards a person for.

But a "consumerist" is a distracted, binge-watching, GrubHub couch potato perhaps sporting a part-time BS job. People are afraid of living in a "distraction/hedonistic/morally corrupt/selfish society". And part of the reason this objection to society comes up so much is that (probably mistakenly) they think the following:

  1. many jobs are BS 2a) much of what people purchase is not actually valuable, only perceived as such. 2b) much of what we buy, our best selves would not.
  2. much of what society nudges us towards (in music, in carbon emissions, in social values) is not in our own or our collective best interests.

To see the other perspective, try replacing "consumption" with food and "consumerism" with obesity. We only have 1 earth (for the foreseeable future), and rampant consumerism leads to a very inefficient conversion from its resources to value.

Also, you can still be anti-consumerism while agreeing that the global south would ideally see higher consumption. Reducing obesity doesn't mean we shouldn't feed the starving.

You asked for steelmanning. I speak as someone who's much on board with much of what you say above. 

For me, the key reason why I'm worried about consumerism is that it can easily become an addiction and it tempts me to give the unimportant things in life too much attention.

Imagine if someone asked why cocaine or alcohol have a bad image. Obviously, cocaine and alcohol make people happy -- very much so. But they're also addictive. What was supposed to be a tool for achieving happiness turns into a master. And then it destroys my ability to focus my full attention on the things that truly make us happy: relationships, God, achievements, nice meals, generosity, art, etc

 

I think part of what the critics of "consumerism" are motivated by is the increased specialization of production which ensued from the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions. Instead of molding their own bowls and carving their own spoons of wood and fashioning their own stools to sit on, people bought much better and cheaper stuff from Wedgewood, Chipendale and other manufacturers.  People had consumed before, but the production was invisible as it occurred  in in cottages.

I think another part of what critics have in mind is that a good bit of consumption is in the form of positional goods - keeping up with the Jonses (or showing you got ahead of them).  Now I think the competition for social status is a human universal and not likely to be changed by mewling moralists.  I think competition by striving to get the baubles - the Ferraris, the Guccis, etc. - is far less damaging than many of the alternatives.  People will compete for social status; it is simply a question of what form the competition will take.  The great triumph of modernity is in replacing the quest for glory and honor with the quest for stuff.

Great post. I would add that when we talk about lifting people out of poverty we're literally talking about increasing their consumption. Consumption is also a synonym for the economic part of well-being.

I'd venture to speculate that the main reason we aren't better at reducing poverty, increasing middle-class well-being, making life better for families, fighting disease, and other important goals, is because we don't pay enough attention to increasing median consumption.