The Morality of Consumption


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Consumption is the defining feature of life today. It’s so central to law/politics/economics that some really smart British dude wrote an 862 page book on it. Empire of Things (2016) by Frank Trentmann.  Consumption wasn’t the center of life in prior times like the ‘chivalrous society’ of knights and serfs or the ‘worker society’ of the industrial revolution.  Work defines us much less now because we have time to pursue other interests.  We are now all consumers of products, services, ideas and experiences.  Consumption is the acquisition, flow and use of things and it now characterizes our identities.


There is an ongoing moral war about Government’s role in consumption. What is proper or good spending as opposed to improper or bad spending; fair/moderate living vs. unfair/excessive living?  And who gets to decide?  Progressives fire moral artillery such as Galbriath’s book The Affluent Society (1958), which argues that after World War II, business no longer satisfies wants, it creates them (with marketing and advertising).  Artificial wants replaced authentic needs so Government intervention is needed to control mindless spending.


Centuries ago, spending on luxuries was met with social disapproval even State prohibition. It was denounced as setting off a spiral of emulative spending – “keeping up with the Joneses”.  Excessive consumption was seen as immoral, so it had to be controlled for the betterment of society.  Modern thinkers don’t think so badly about consumption, viewing it now as a matter of private choice in a culture of individualism and free markets.  Material satisfaction is even ennobled by a natural urge for self-improvement.  Leisure time need not be an opportunity for stagnation (idleness, drunkenness, etc.) it can be used more for sport, travel and the expansion of personal knowledge and experience.  Consumption, as Trentmann puts it, is “like climbing a ladder of ever higher tastes and faculties, with each activity releasing new energy to move up to the next rung”.


Grasping the morality of consumption is a necessary component in your Estate Planning War Chest because it drives public policy debates. Consumption is driven not by the economist’s notion of rational preference – maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  It’s much more psychological because of the overwhelming human desire to feel superior to others.  Consumption is relational, as use of the term “conspicuous consumption” implies.  The poor and insecure set their level of consumption, in part, to “keep up with the Joneses” because they lack economic self-esteem.


There’s no need for you to consume conspicuously or try and prove anything to anyone. You are, in fact, already superior – you are more informed and in a vastly superior wealth position than the majority of Americans.  Enjoy it – sandbag it.  The biggest, darkest, most evil enemy on the wealth war battlefield is leftists, socialist political thought. European lifestyles are much more homogenous because the State controls consumption.  Socialism or a public policy shift in that direction is a direct threat to those of us in the mass affluent because we each enjoy our own personal lifestyle island. We will not be assimilated into some central planner’s Borg like collective.  Screw that.  As Patrick Henry said, give me liberty or give me death.



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