Last Christmas, Pope Francis criticized holiday consumerism, saying that ours is “a society often intoxicated by consumerism … wealth and extravagance.”
To understand why this sort of critique is mistaken, and why consumerism and capitalism deserve our love at Christmastime and throughout the year, we need to go back to basics.
The Relationship Between Capitalism and Consumerism
Capitalism, properly understood, is the system of individual rights.
Put simply, capitalism is the only social system recognizing that your life belongs to you.
An individual’s life does not belong to the state, it does not belong to the church, and it does not belong to the family. It belongs to the individual.
Under capitalism, your rights are recognized: your right to your own life, your right to liberty — to protection against the initiation of force or fraud — your right to earn and to own property, and your right to pursue your own happiness.
Such rights extend to both the sphere of personal morality and that of economics. For example, you have the right to freedom of speech and intellectual expression, to freedom of religion, to freedom of voting, to freedom to choose your own reading, viewing, or listening materials, and so forth; similarly, you have the right to retain the wealth that you earn, to own your own home, land, or farm, to start your own business, and so on.
This is the nature of capitalism.
Has mankind yet achieved such an entirely free society? No — but in the late 19th century, after the abolition of slavery, the northern states of the United States were, historically, the closest that mankind has ever come to such a free society. (The southern states still legally persecuted black American citizens.)
Capitalism’s Practical Benefits
Human beings flourish on earth by means of applied intelligence. To grow food, for example, requires knowledge of both agricultural science and agricultural technology. To treat disease involves advances in biology and medical science.
Mind power is mankind’s instrument of survival — just as wings are for birds, claws and fangs are for lions, and footspeed is for antelopes.
Capitalism liberates the brain power of, potentially, every human being.
For, if your life belongs to you, it follows logically that your mind belongs to you — and you are free to develop it in any creative field you choose.
On the other hand, if your life belongs to the state, it follows logically that your mind belongs to the state; the only “thinking” you may do is that which is permitted by the state — and if you disagree you will be punished, perhaps killed.
This is why capitalism creates an enormous amount of intellectual and material wealth — be it fiction or non-fiction books, music, movies, computers, smart phones, clothes, food, medicines, automobiles, and thousands of other goods and services. This is also why the more dictatorial a country is, the less freedom it has — and the more terrible poverty from which it suffers.
The countries closest to capitalism in actual practice — such mostly free societies as Hong Kong and the United States, especially during the late 19th and the turn of the 20th century — have shown mankind that freedom and vast creation of intellectual/material wealth are possible.
The Nature of Consumerism
We are all consumers of goods and services. In that sense, life depends on consumerism.
We must consume food. We must consume (that is, pay for and use) clothing, a home, a car or some other form of transportation, a phone, a computer, at times medical services and medications, and so on. In the absence of some of these consumer goods or services, human beings will die.
Since human life depends on consumerism, it is morally good.
An important point regarding consumerism is to recognize that nobody, neither an individual nor a nation, can consume more than it produces. A simple example is that we must grow sufficient food so that we may have enough food to eat.
Production of goods and services — of intellectual and material wealth — is an important moral virtue. It is so because it makes consumption and, therefore, human life possible.
Consumption is necessary under any type of social system. But capitalism — to its everlasting credit — produces vastly more wealth than does any other system. Consequently, it enables vastly more consumption than is possible under other systems; it thereby raises living standards and increases life expectancies. This serves to illustrate an important moral conclusion: Capitalism is the life-giving political-economic system.
Consumerism at Christmas
Consumerism has often been criticized for being too materialistic, and especially so at Christmas. Now we can see why this criticism is mistaken.
First, human beings are, in part, material beings. In order to survive, we must consume material products. Furthermore, we rise from bare survival to prosperity, in part, by producing and consuming more material goods and services — more food, more houses, more clothing, more medical care, more automobiles, more computers, and so forth. Who determines, if not the individual himself, what level of material prosperity is best for that individual? A visit to the nearest shopping mall makes clear how many people are made happier by an abundance of consumer goods.
Second, under capitalism, intellectual wealth — novels, films, music, scientific theories, philosophic works, lectures, books on every imaginable topic, and more — is created and sold in huge supply, both online and in stores.
Third, millions of people — including many secular persons — especially children, love the exchange of Christmas presents. It is, properly, an integral part of the goodwill of the Christmas season. Part of our nature is bodily; consequently, that which enhances our bodily life — good food, a beautiful home, fine clothes, material gifts for our children, our loved ones, ourselves, and so forth — is good.
To be “intoxicated,” as Pope Francis put it, is often an unhealthy state. Rather, we should be in love with the production and consumption of material and intellectual wealth, at Christmas and throughout the year. Such activity enhances man’s earthly life — and, as such, is an unqualified good.