All have seen

All the ends of the earth
have seen the salvation of our God:
sing joyfully to God, all the earth. – Psalm 98:3

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Occupy and the Unasked Question: Conspicuous Consumption

Thornstein Veblen
First Things rightly points out how wrong it is for us to entirely bat away the concerns of the Occupy group - however intentionally annoying the Occupiers may be - in an article Occupy and the Injustices of Inequality.

"We ought to ask of economics the same question of that we ask with regards to any other moral issue: how it fosters or frustrates human flourishing."

It is true that the Occupy movement is difficult to deal with - given that its critique of society seems so vapid and monolithic - and reverberations in the press don't seem to be generating anything deeper, either.

Nonetheless - it is a good thing to examine our economic and political system, with the aim of arriving at more poignant questions, new avenues for dialogue, and uncovering our blindness to issues that don't usually grab our attention.
And the three authors of this First Things blog post do a great job at summarizing the social ills that accompany a high degree of economic inequality between classes.

I suppose though that it is also worth asking: "Is a society based on liberal capitalism which has embraced conspicuous consumption as an ideal to the degree that America has, not predisposed toward fostering such economic inequality?" This is a question of rather serious magnitude and would take a great deal of thought, research, and unpacking. But let us first consider one element of this question - that of conspicuous consumption.

My own "take" here is more or less this: that conspicuous consumption is the greatest enemy, greater than the economic inequality itself. In nearly all societies, power has been held by a few - whether they be aristocracy, elected officials, or the wealthy. But we rightly expect this power to be exercised wisely and justly. We have been aware since ancient times that mob rule is one of the very most painful and unjust forms of government.

When the wealthy invest their wealth in the creation of jobs - e.g., in farms, factories, shops, corporations, stocks ... they are investing wisely and justly, and re-distributing wealth in a productive manner for the public good.

When they invest their wealth in ridiculously large houses, insanely expensive sports cars, boats, fashion accoutrements etc. etc., though there is some initial employment, the house or sports car is economically speaking a "dead end" - it does not further employment or the public good.

What is particularly ugly are the social effects - envy and jealousy, social stratification which has little to do with merit or talent, and widescale loss of trust in employers and governments for the portion of work which does not go toward feeding, housing, and educating, but is rather tied up in such an economic dead end with its toxic effects on society.

Combatting conspicuous consumption is not the task of the government with taxes and regulations, as much as it's the task of those who are intent upon socially changing the status quo for the benefit of all.

Unfortunately, those who traditionally use their moral authority for the end of changing society - "the left" - have been disproportionately concerned with sex and gender issues in the last decade. We hear extremely vituperative language regarding those who do not believe it is a good idea to re-define the public institution of marriage - or who do not wish their work to go toward paying for abortifacients, which kill human life. These persons, we hear, are "haters" or involved in a "war."

I do not believe we should subject those involved in conspicuous consumption to this type of language. But on the other hand, we also must not accept them in all occasions with open arms ... we must make clear to them that they carry with themselves a social disease ... though we also may not abdicate our responsibility of loving them. We should treat them socially like we might a rather socially dangerous fundamentalist - like a member of the Fred Phelps clan. With love, but also with some pointed clarity.

It's not about the possession of economic power per se. It's about just, wise, and virtuous use of the economic power one has.

It is perhaps the general problem that Americans as a group - the richest and the poorest - have so given into conspicuous consumption, that we are unable to look at this issue without seeing some hypocrisy in ourselves. This means our rage must not be directed at the 1%ers alone. We must also be angry with ourselves, when we spend to win admiration, or belong to a crowd - rather than spending in a manner which contributes to the genuine flourishing of ourselves and those around us.

No comments: