12 April 2005

Consumerism and the choice-enhancement state

Our resident Latin-rite Calvinist has posted three intriguing pieces in a row, two of which address the impact of consumerism in our society, including the christian churches. Drawing on my colleague, Craig Bartholomew, who has written on the subject in a book called Christ and Consumerism, Mr. Joustra makes the following observations:

Consumerism is more than shopping, and more than economic habits. Some authors have placed consumerism as an ideological subset of individualism; that is our lifestyles of consumption focus themselves on our ego, in which our possessions serve as worshipers. However, the relationship in the current age has been reversed. No longer do possessions serve the individual, but, as one author notes, "consumption has now become the dominant faith and individualism, together with other subordinate commitments, serves it. Consumption is collectivist-individualist, nationalist-internationalist, the healer, the entertainer, the lover, the spiritual, the feeder and the consolation. It is the chief rival to God in our culture."

Although I do not treat consumerism per se in my Political Visions and Illusions, I wonder whether its political manifestation might not correspond to what I have called the choice-enhancement state, that is, the fifth and latest stage in the development of liberalism. There is an undergirding assumption in our culture that it is good for individuals to have an expanding array of choices set before them, much like a buffet table with a variety of edible delicacies to tempt the palate. Politically this assumption translates into two possibilities: (1) government should free up the economic marketplace to allow individuals to pursue their own rational self-interest; or (2) government should intervene to expand the number of choices available to individuals and to compensate for the inevitable negative side-effects of those choices. In any event, it is taken as axiomatic that governments should not pursue policies supportive of some choices over others, lest it become an oppressive legislator of the good life. That choice might entail obligations or responsibilities does not enter the picture. Over the long term this is a recipe, not for freedom, but ultimately for tyranny.

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