Critics often say capitalism produces, and we mindlessly consume, all sorts of junk we don't really need. We could live a lot more simply, more in tune with nature, with more time for one another.
Some thinkers say that individualistic consumerism distracts us from more satisfying collective pursuits. Others urge us to pare down our consumption. They want us to minimize our "carbon footprints," as if catastrophe draws closer with each trip to the store, with each exhale.
The Greek philosopher Diogenes, who extolled the unencumbered life of the lowly dog, would have agreed. One day, Diogenes smashed his only possession, a wooden bowl, after seeing a peasant boy drink from his cupped hands. Today, there are Jainist monks in India who walk around naked. Who can commune with the transcendent when bogged down in grubby material things, like pants?
Sure, most critics of consumption don't take it as far as Diogenes. But if you're going to take it anywhere, you've got to draw a line and say why pants and bowls go on one side of it, and iPhones and a 20-ounce soy milk mochaccino go on another.
But why suppose there's one line? Different people have different aspirations and plans. They have different frames of reference for adequacy and excess. What each of us needs depends on what we are trying to make of our lives.
Of course, moralizers of all stripes, from officious environmentalists to religious fundamentalists, have strong ideas about what we really need. But the fact that you think you know what's best for me doesn't mean I don't really need my nose hair trimmer or my stuffed armadillo. I have my reasons.
If this wild assortment of stuff was really crushing our souls, then maybe we ought to smash our flatscreens like Diogenes smashed his bowl. But the evidence is clear: People are most likely to be happy, healthy, well-educated and long-lived in places where people consume the most.
Maybe we don't need to be happy, or to live 80 years. But if we want to, then we've got a good thing going. Just don't trip over your Roomba.
Will Wilkinson discusses whether to pare down consumption on Marketplace (February 20, 2008) [Real Media, MP3]