Does free enterprise lead to an ugly consumerist culture?
For many critics, the modern market economy is not a pretty sight. People hear “free enterprise” and think urban sprawl, strip malls, grasping merchants, homogeneous suburban developments, ugly billboard signs, and bland McDonald’s hamburgers served everywhere from St. Louis to Shanghai, all accompanied by the persistent drum beat: consume, consume, consume.
Additionally, many Christians worry that free enterprise inevitably corrodes cultural values like faith, family, and community, replacing them with an obsession with stuff. Is this true?
Most of these concerns fall prey to myth #7 of the eight most popular myths about wealth, poverty, and free enterprise.
Myth #7: The Artsy Myth – confusing aesthetic judgments with economic arguments.
Many of the aesthetic objections people raise against free enterprise are a matter of preference, not economics. Much can be said about this, but I want to counter this myth first by exploring the spiritual conditions underlying it.
The ugliness we perceive in free market societies is not caused by free enterprise, but by the sin of gluttony, and the materialist worldview.
Consumerism is similar to a sin mentioned in scripture: gluttony. Gluttony generally refers to eating and drinking too much, but applies to the over-consumption of other goods and services as well.
Proverbs 23:19-21 warns:
Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clouds them in rags.
Gluttony is a problem of excess, of not restraining our appetites when we should. It involves the state of our hearts, and the orientation of our desires and priorities.
Immoderate desire is the problem, not consumption. Jesus said as much when he said in Matthew 6:24 that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. Paul made much the same point when he said the love of money, not money itself, was the root of all evil.
But do free enterprise and consumerist, gluttonous behavior have to be two peas in a pod?
Some distinctions might be helpful here. Free enterprise refers to an economic system with rule of law and private property, in which people can freely exchange goods and services. It is best for distributing goods, services, and information.
But the system doesn’t determine what choices people will make. People often confuse the free market with the bad choices free people choose. Freedom of choice doesn’t dictate what people will choose. It may allow people to choose gluttony and consumerism, but it doesn’t cause them to.
So the gluttony we see on display in free economies is not caused by those economies being free. It is caused by humanity’s sinful nature. This underscores the importance of free institutions of civil society, like family and the church, that can help produce virtuous people who make right choices.
But gluttony is not the only cause of the ugliness we may see in free societies. The materialist worldview plays a role, too.
2. The Materialist Worldview
Some things are just ugly. I don’t know anyone who thinks ordinary strip malls and oil refineries are beautiful. But that’s not their purpose.
It’s unreasonable to expect every building to satisfy high aesthetic standards of artistic merit. Uniform aesthetic laws, for, say, grocery stores would raise the price of many goods and services, making them out of reach for those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
The real problem is not strip malls and factories that serve legitimate purposes, but modern architecture, art, and music that celebrate meaningless and ugliness rather than truth, goodness, and beauty.
A materialist worldview has influenced almost every nook and cranny of Western culture. This worldview insists that “beauty” has no objective basis in reality. Wherever we find the influence of this materialism, we are almost always sure to find ugliness.
This outlook, as explained in a previous post, denies the divine. It declares that matter is all that is, and all that matters. Matter is our fundamental reality.
Genesis 2:7 clearly contradicts this worldview when it describes in detail how God created humanity. He formed Adam from dirt, and breathed life into him. We are a mix of the material and immaterial, and, being made in the image of God, have great worth and beauty.
If God and the Bible serve as our objective framework for reality, then we do have a basis for determining beauty. A worldview that claims otherwise should not be celebrated, but lamented. Unfortunately, critics of free enterprise direct their lament towards free markets, and not this materialist worldview.
Aesthetic objections against free enterprise are understandable, but misdirected. Free markets may allow for an ugly consumerist culture, but the cause of this culture is not our economic system – it’s our sinful nature and a misguided worldview that celebrates ugliness instead of beauty and truth.
This post is adapted from the book Money, Greed, and God.