The Curious Problem Of Having More Than You Need

April 3, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 3, 2007.

Denouncing the vulgar banality of consumer capitalism is a time‐​honored ritual. At the end of the 19th century, Thorstein Veblen offered his withering assessment of “conspicuous consumption.” Since then, various denunciations have come from John Kenneth Galbraith, Herbert Marcuse, Jean Baudrillard and, more recently, Naomi Klein (“No Logo”) and Thomas Frank (“One Market Under God”). The gist never changes: Material plenty is a mask for spiritual poverty; the proliferation of marketplace choices, a subtle form of tyranny.

Benjamin Barber’s variation on the theme, in Consumed, is to decry consumerism’s “infantilization” of the culture. Sounding like the grumpiest of social conservatives, Mr. Barber, a proud progressive, blasts the youth‐​obsessed self‐​indulgence of an “infantilist ethos” that values “EASY over HARD, SIMPLE over COMPLEX, and FAST over SLOW.” He even contrasts today’s childishness with the good old days of the Protestant ethic, according to which “work was truly a calling, and investment a mark of prudent altruism and democratic nation‐​building rather than mere selfishness.” What an exceedingly strange sentiment for a man of the left: nostalgia for the bourgeoisie!

Mr. Barber blames the slide into decadence on rising productivity. Long ago, he argues, “a productivist capitalism prospered by meeting the real needs of real people.” Today, though, “consumerist capitalism” nurtures “a culture of impetuous consumption necessary to selling puerile goods in a developed world that has few genuine needs.” Thus are we afflicted with Britney Spears, reality television, sports stadiums named after corporations, blockbuster movies based on comic books, and a host of other things that get Mr. Barber’s goat.

Putting aside his normative judgments, one easily recognizes the dynamic he describes. In our present condition of mass affluence, most people can meet their basic needs for food, shelter and clothing with a paltry fraction of their income. Most spending is discretionary — which means that producers must engage in elaborate attempts at persuasion, known as advertising. And since human beings, with their irrepressible imaginations, like to invest inanimate objects with meaning, advertising often strives to associate goods with appealing flights of fancy.

As to the broader celebration of youth that so irks Mr. Barber, it too is a result of prosperity. As the economy becomes more complex and requires more highly trained workers, we have extended adolescence by staying longer and longer in school. With ready birth control and no need any longer for extra hands on the farm, we are taking longer to assume the adult responsibilities of getting married and having children. Better medicine, cheaper food and more leisure time have allowed us to focus increased attention on keeping our bodies youthful. And wealth buffers us from the downsides of impulsiveness and playfulness. Consequently, we’ve shed much (sometimes too much!) of the old obsession with repressing desires and deferring gratification.

To be sure, capitalism has both fed and profited from this increasing youth‐​centeredness. What Mr. Barber neglects to mention, however, is that hostility to capitalism and materialistic motivations has also played a major role in instigating the cultural shift he condemns. Has Mr. Barber forgotten the counterculture? “Don’t trust anybody over 30,” “if it feels good, do it,” “question authority” — the romantic rebels of the 1960s who mouthed these slogans had no use for either profits or Protestantism. What Mr. Barber now condemns as puerility they prized as spontaneity and authenticity. Such attitudes put an unmistakable stamp on the world that, for better and worse, we inhabit today.

Here is where Mr. Barber’s brief against consumerism completely falls apart. He sees the explosion of consumer choices today and assumes that Americans are growing ever more materialistic: The more gadgets, gizmos and fripperies the marketplace serves up, the more deeply we fall under commerce’s evil spell. In fact, the opposite is true.

Political scientist Ronald Inglehart has exhaustively documented a world‐​wide shift toward “postmaterialist” values, in which, as he puts it, the “emphasis on economic achievement as the top priority is now giving way to an increasing emphasis on the quality of life.” The more stuff we have, the less interested we become in simply accumulating more and the more we seek out instead the intangible satisfactions of memorable experiences, meaningful work and self‐​realization.

The existence of books like Mr. Barber’s proves the point. In an amusing irony, the progress of capitalist development creates a continuing demand for fulminations against the evils of materialism. Thus do anti‐​market intellectuals like Benjamin Barber find their niche in the consumerist cornucopia they so revile.

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