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The Answer to Consumerism Is a Changed Heart, Not New Laws

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A couple years ago, I 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 was 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 were available because a relatively free market allowed engineers in one country to design the shoes, workers in another country to build them, and me to buy them 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 from 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 of capitalism 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 the 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.

Check out Edd Noell’s essay, “Capitalism and Consumerism: Delighting in Both Creation and the Responsibilities of Affluence” in the new book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism. Order your copy in the IFWE bookstore

Help reach more people with this critical message of freedom, fulfillment, and flourishing! Donate to IFWE today.

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on Dec. 19, 2014.

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  • mark barr

    terrific article! an informative, systematic appeal with potential to change world views. I will pray for the Holy Spirit to open hearts.
    Thank You.

  • Duane Covrig

    Very well presented. Thanks.

    I have seen entrepreneurs practice great self-denial not just so they could make more money–which was part of their aim–but also so they could get a new service and new product to those they felt would benefit from it. They had something to give.

    Those of us who have tasted the gospel have something that starves out greed and consumerism. It is a relationship, a product, an experience we want to scrap all our dimes together to deliver to others.

    Its the bigger gift that drives out stuff idolatry.

    As Paul stated:

    Acts 20:33-35The Message (MSG)

    “I’ve never, as you so well know, had any taste for wealth or fashion. With
    these bare hands I took care of my own basic needs and those who worked
    with me. In everything I’ve done, I have demonstrated to you how
    necessary it is to work on behalf of the weak and not exploit them.
    You’ll not likely go wrong here if you keep remembering that our Master
    said, ‘You’re far happier giving than getting.’”

    Jesus was right… giving is the deepest joy that makes even capitalistic impulses get even more excited!!!

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