The Christmas shopping period, beginning almost with a starter pistol on so-called “Black Friday” in November and culminating in the January sales, is one of the busiest in the year for the retail industry. The period of celebration, feasting and gift giving is critical to the annual revenue and profits of hundreds of consumer-facing industries, with the volume of spending increasing by more than 50% according to some estimates.

Against all of this is the charge that consumerism and capitalism has distorted and destroyed the older traditions and practices of the holiday season. What was once a period of religious observance and a time for more modest celebrations with one’s friends and family has mutated into a mass shopping frenzy where people care more about what they can buy rather than on the meaning and significance of Christmas. Greedy retailers encourage us to spend increasing amounts of money on clothes, furniture, electronics, and entertainment that most of us probably do not need. We merrily guzzle on tons of unhealthy sugary and fattening food and alcohol which simply expand our waistlines through a myriad of parties and get-togethers during the festive period. Once we have stuffed ourselves we then happily “invest” in our new year’s resolutions by forking out on so-called “detox” and exercise regimens, healthy foods and tight fitting clothes to the very same peddlers who made us fat in the first place.

Moreover, there can be little doubt that this “consumerism” has changed the traditions of the winter period in the past few generations, as retailers attempt to fill the long void between the end of summer and December 25th. Advent was previously a time of preparation and observance, during which the last of the harvest foods were brought in and preserved ready for the long winter ahead. Christmas, on the other hand, was the beginning of period of feasting and celebration that brought cheer and merriment to the cold, dark winter days which lasted until the arrival of Lent in mid to late February. With the evenings then growing lighter and the temperature warmer the inducement to “giving up” after the previous period of luxuriant consumption was altogether easier. Now, however, the period of celebration – parties, get-togethers and splashing out – has shifted to December and culminates, rather than commences, on Christmas Day. After that there is little more to look forward to other than new year’s celebrations, after which – at the darkest, deadest and least conducive period of the year – we are suddenly expected to start afresh by going to the gym and slimming down. It is for this reason that Christmas seems to come earlier every year. As so much is now packed into just three or four weeks of what is often still late Autumn weather all of the planning and preparation spills into the earlier months – sometimes, to the discontent of many traditionalists, as early as September when mince pies and Christmas crackers can be spotted in the supermarkets.

If we assume that this type of so-called consumerism is a bad thing and has, indeed, served to distort and ruin treasured seasonal traditions, advocates of the free market are faced with the charge that consumerism is a product of capitalism; that our greater ability to produce and raise the standard of living rather than live in a society characterised by mud huts and starvation has made us all slaves to materialism with no regard for anything deeper or more meaningful. (Never mind that capitalism, perversely, is also blamed for increasing the plight of the poor and benefiting only the rich. Critics of capitalism are seldom consistent in their indictments). The proper retort to such a charge is that capitalism is, in fact, the very opposite of consumerism, or rather that consumerism is the effect of a social order that is anti-capitalist. First, capitalism and the free market orders are distinguished by the fact that they involve the accumulation of capital – in other words a relatively high percentage of current income is saved and invested in capital goods that will only later yield a higher production of consumer goods. Consumerism, however, is distinguished by people not saving or investing, and instead deciding to spend a relatively greater proportion of their current incomes on consumer goods. In the lexicon of economics, a capitalist society is one of low time preference and wealth accumulation whereas a consumerist society is one of high time preference and wealth destruction. The worst case of consumerism, and one in which we partly live, is where people consume more than their current incomes on consumer goods by borrowing money. It is true, of course, that capitalism creates the wherewithal to produce a relatively greater number of consumer goods than any other social order and that those living in a capitalist society will, in fact, consume more than those living in a non-capitalist society. However, the charge of anti-consumerism is nothing to do with the absolute volume of consumer goods that are purchased. Rather, the problem is the obsession with and focus on consumption of whatever there is to consume at the expense of anything else. Consumerism, we might say, is a phenomenon of a previously capitalist-oriented society that has turned its efforts away from saving and capital accumulation and towards the consumption of everything that has thus far been produced – possibly even the consumption of accumulated capital.

From where does the inducement to this consumerism come? It is true, of course, that nothing about capitalism prevents people from turning towards desires for excessive consumption; but neither, too, does it encourage it. To the extent, therefore, that the phenomenon is widespread there must be some kind of systemic influence towards consumerism other than anything to do with capitalism itself. This systemic influence is the very opposite of capitalism, or rather, we might say, perversions of capitalist orders – the false economic theories and destructive economic practices of the state. These false economic theories, such as varieties of Keynesianism, promote consumption as the foundation of economic growth, whereas abstinence from consumption and saving are painted as cumulatively destructive practices. National accounting figures, which do little more than present the economy as one, giant number which, if rising, represents a good state of affairs and, if falling, represents a perilous state of affairs, have inbuilt consumption biases which give the illusion that consumption leads to prosperity. A large portion of so-called Gross Domestic Product (GDP) consists of consumption spending and government spending (the latter of which, by its nature, is also always consumption spending). Boost these figures and up goes the standard of living, so we are told. Moreover, the obsession with avoiding any kind of “double counting” means that a significant proportion of what is truly the gross annual product, such as investment in early stage capital goods, are simply discounted, further inflating the importance of consumption spending. Because of all this it is possible to have prosperous GDP figures, “moderate” interest rates and what appears to be relatively low price inflation that masks underlying economic distortions during a boom phase – such as was experienced in the period leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. And such financial crises are themselves, of course, the result of destructive economic practices induced by the state, such as the forced lowering of interest rates and the expansion of the volume of credit. Such acts do, of course, cause the ill-fated boom phase of the business cycle but they also encourage our main bugbear here which is consumerism. When people see their nominal wages and asset prices rising rapidly – something that would not happen in a genuine free market, which is distinguished by increasing real wages – they believe that they are wealthier than they actually are and thus they are duped into thinking that they have a greater proportion of their incomes available for consumption spending. If boosting their spending on consumer goods was not bad enough, however, they even begin to secure loans and borrowings against the rising value of their assets in order to further fuel increased consumption. In November of 2015, average debt per person in the UK stood at £28,877 – 113% of average earnings. Indeed, credit expansion anyway encourages a debt fuelled society – apart from actually creating the money to be loaned out, the accompanying price inflation makes debt-based finance more attractive than funding expenditure out of equity. The illusion that money is cheap, that everything can be bought now and that we do not need to be prudent and patient simply exacerbates the high time preference, consumerist society.

As we mentioned earlier, nothing about a free society will ever prevent people from becoming consumerist in the same was that it doesn’t stop people from becoming drug users or prostitutes or from engaging in other non-aggressive but otherwise illicit activities. However, we can make a case for saying that such acts are always likely to be more prevalent in the kind of high time preference society that the state encourages. A high incidence of drug use and prostitution, for example, indicates that people prefer a “quick fix” now and are not willing to wait for good feelings and pleasurable experiences to culminate as a result of longer or more difficult (but ultimately more rewarding) endeavours such as exercise and building strong relationships. And, as we have argued elsewhere, given that wealth in a free society accumulates to those who best serve the needs of consumers, more conservative virtues such as patience, prudence, trustworthiness, reliability, good taste and judgment, are likely to be the hallmarks of a capitalist society rather than substance abuse and casual sex.

If, therefore, consumerism is to be deplored we should focus our ire not at the capitalist system that simply permits us to enjoy the Christmas period however we want (and, moreover, creates the wherewithal for us to do so – plump roast turkeys on the table of almost every family on Christmas Day is a relatively new phenomenon). Instead, we should direct it at the state whose false prophets and destructive practices turn us from a society of wealth creators to one of wealth destroyers.

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