Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

How Should Christians Think about Free Markets and Consumerism?

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I recently bought the best fitting pair of running shoes I’ve owned in a decade.

This is significant because I have rather oddly shaped feet and the break-in process for shoes can be uncomfortable.

This pair is different because I was able to search through dozens of shoe models on a website, following directions to determine the best fitting shoe. I was able to purchase a ready-made shoe at a reasonable price. They fit wonderfully.

These shoes are available because a relatively free market allowed engineers in one country to design a shoe, workers in another country to build it, and me to buy it in the U.S.

Many people with specialized skills came together to build a shoe that fits my oddly shaped feet and I am thankful for it.

Free Markets and Consumerism

Critics of the free-market approach sometimes confuse a free-market economic system with consumerism. Consumerism is an attitude that values owning and using stuff.

According to Roger Gottlieb,

Consumerism teaches that the central goal of human existence is the satisfaction of an ever growing, ever changing array of personal desires.

Consumerism is closely related to greed, but very different than a free-market.

Free markets have the potential to lead to consumerism. In fact, all economic systems do because consumerism is an attitude.

To be fair, consumerism is more likely to be visible in a relatively free market. In systems where prosperity is less prevalent, consumerism is less visible.

The attitude may still exist, but if goods and services are not available or discretionary resources are more limited there is less opportunity for obvious demonstrations of greed.

A relatively free market allows for the demand for varied shoe styles to result in customers buying them. There is nothing inherently wrong with purchasing or wearing a pair of shoes that fits.

There is, however, something wrong with buying an excessive number of shoes and disposing of shoes before they are worn out; this is consumerism, which is a form of idolatry.

Greed and Self-Interest

Since consumerism is an internal attitude, an economic system cannot prevent it.

In extreme cases of centralized economic control, governments can create regulations to restrict the purchase of commodities using a ration system. Such measures can limit the demonstration of consumerism, but they won’t change people’s hearts. Consumerism is driven by greed.

Some opponents claim greed is central to free-market economics. Ayn Rand, an advocate for capitalism, openly made that claim. More careful proponents of a free-market system, however, read Adam Smith’s explanation of “self-interest” as something different from greed.

They argue greed is a perversion of self-interest, that it over-emphasizes individualism and neglects the aspects of self-interest that include community responsibility.

Consumerism is sin; to combat it we must deal with the cause, not the symptoms. The heart must be changed. Restricting access to goods and services by passing laws will not improve attitudes and desires.

The greed of consumerism can only be changed from within.

Contentment and a Change of Heart

The answer to consumerism is not new laws, but contentment with God’s provision.

In a letter to Timothy, Paul encourages him to be content (but not complacent). He writes,

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 5:7–9)

This is not a passive endurance that requires a renunciation of worldly goods. Rather, it is a form of contentment with what is justly available. By definition it requires a renunciation of sinful greed.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ urges the crowd to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) Again, the message is not the renunciation of the material world, but pursuit of God in all of life.

Greed is a pursuit of personal gain that neglects the common good and places ultimate value on the material prosperity. It results in serving money as a master and excessively valuing possessions on earth, which Christ cautions against (Matthew 6:19–24).Greed and contentment cannot coexist.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon asks an important question, “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (Ecclesiastes 3:9)

He answers his own question:

I perceived there is nothing better for [workers] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil–this is God’s gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13)

The answer to consumerism is to enjoy our work and the fruit of our labor as a gift from God. Such contentment is an internal attitude that must be cultivated by individuals, not imposed by an external structure.

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  • chris wolske

    Nicely done.

  • Andy Muhlenkamp

    Andrew, from the perspective of the shoe company (let’s say it’s publicly owned/traded and needs to return a certain profit to investors) won’t they want, and encourage, you and other shoe buyers to buy “an excessive number of shoes”? And to “dispose of them before they are worn out”? This seems to be the premise of much advertising and new shoe styles coming out every year. It will be to their benefit (and their shareholders) if you do so. I am not opposed to free markets, but if continuous economic growth is a necessary bedfellow of those free markets then I think there is definitely a connection between the market and consumerism. Contentment amongst consumers will slow/stop economic growth, and in fact it seems to me that economic growth and contentment cannot coexist. Thoughts?

    • Spence Spencer

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I tend to disagree that economic growth and contentment cannot coexist, though I do not disagree that it currently does not exist for most. I don’t think that continuous economic growth is a necessary component of free markets, though many businesses seem to evaluate it as an inherent good. Economic growth is only good when it is properly directed toward a worthy goal. The argument breaks down over the impossibility coexistence between economic growth and contentment because they are in different logical categories. One is an economic term and one is a heart term; one is an external condition, the other is an internal condition. This is not to say that marketing is not designed to foment consumerism, but that isn’t having a free market, that is a specific tactic designed to undermine contentment. Again, a different category. More could be said, but in general, that’s how I would approach this question.

    • Paul Filidis

      Just as self-interest can turn into greed within any community–prosperous or poor (there will always be a neighbor who may have something I desire), so contentment can be found in either type of community as well. Free market has a better chance to foster contentment than a centralized one in that it mirrors the way our creator interacts with us. We have been given ownership (as stewards) over the world to tend it, and we are motivated to be productive by being able to enjoy the fruit of our labor. But does the free market also have a better chance to foster common good, compared to centralized market control mechanism? I would think so. It is in the self-interest of the prosperous and productive to ensure that labor gets appropriately remunerated so as to be financially able to participate in the market as consumers.

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