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Don’t Blame Capitalism for Consumerism. Blame the Government

In a free market, the high price of a product is generally a function of supply and demand dynamics rather than the result of a “greedy capitalist” setting the price arbitrarily. The price reflects the relative scarcity of the product and what consumers are willing to pay for it. Consumers agree to pay this price because they value the product more highly than the money they must forgo to acquire it. If the supply of a product increases, the price will fall until it equals the demand. Similarly, if the product becomes more scarce, its price will rise until demand is in equilibrium with supply.

Not only do prices inform consumers about scarcity, they also influence consumption habits. Consumers defer their consumption when they perceive goods to be “too expensive.” They subjectively value the money they would have to spend more highly than the goods themselves. All this seems obvious, yet most people do not realize its implications.

Participants in the market convey their evolving preferences and conditions to one another by either making purchases or abstaining from buying at specific price points. Prices thus serve as a mechanism for coordinating the allocation and use of resources across a market. By accurately reflecting the relative scarcity of resources, they incentivize producers and consumers to use resources more efficiently.

In a capitalist system, prices are signals to entrepreneurs and consumers, determined by supply and demand. High prices due to resource scarcity restrict consumption and encourage savings and investment.

As its name suggests, capitalism is primarily about accumulating capital and capital growth. Notably, one cannot achieve this by consuming wealth. To the contrary, it is forgoing consumption that allows one to save and invest and thus accumulate capital.

So, if capitalism systematically discourages consumption, what causes consumerism? First, I should highlight that consumerism is a cultural attribute, distinct from the economic system in place. A capitalist society is free to be as consumerist or non-consumerist as the individuals living under it wish to be. Likewise, nothing necessarily prevents a communist society from being consumerist. People under communism are under the whims of the central planners, and one should not assume that could never lead to a consumerist society. At least capitalism does not rob the choice of the people!

Interestingly, the people who criticize capitalism for promoting consumerism tend to be the ones who argue consumption “drives the economy.” So, they are literally the ones arguing for more consumption. I am referring to the Keynesian, and unfortunately, all too popular argument that “consumption is the key to a healthy economy.” In reality, production precedes consumption and is thus responsible for driving the economy and creating wealth.

In 2010, as mainstream economists chastised the rich for not spending enough, Lew Rockwell succinctly summed up this point:

“The trouble is that spending is not the cause of economic growth. Investment, which begins in saving, is the root of economic growth. It doesn’t matter that consumption makes up a certain percentage of economic activity. That’s only the surface you are looking at. Spending and consumption without saving and investment is a prescription for devouring the prospects for prosperity down the line. In this case, the best thing that the rich can do for a future of economic growth is not to spend but to save toward investment.”

One reason for the existence of a consumerist society could be simply that its people like to buy material things as it gives them a sense of comfort or pride. A lack of financial literacy likely contributes to their materialist tendencies. However, governments can contribute to this trend by weakening the market-based reliable signals previously mentioned.

To “boost” economic activity, for instance, the government artificially lowers interest rates that guide consumers on whether to save or spend. High interest rates lead to less discounting of the future and more savings, while low rates promote immediate consumption of goods. To induce consumer spending in the short run, the government disrupts this equilibrium by forcing down interest rates. That leads to unsustainable consumer spending due to the distortion of these vital price signals.

Ironically, behavior induced by government intervention gets labeled as “consumerism,” yet the blame often erroneously falls on capitalism and free markets.

Further Reading

Does Capitalism Really Promote Consumerism? by Patrick Carroll

Capitalism Doesn’t Cause Consumerism — Governments Do by Ryan McMaken

Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.

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