Should Buddhists Worry about Consumerism?

Critiquing the case against consumerism, exploring the dangers of political consumerism, and showing how market innovation enables the cultivation of Buddhist values and practices.

Welcome to another issue of The Free Market Buddhist newsletter. This week looks at consumerism, a common worry Buddhists have about free markets. I discuss the Buddhist case against consumerism, argue that it’s less persuasive than it might seem, and point out the problems of political consumerism, which is both more pervasive and dangerous. The issue closes with an argument that unleashing markets and innovation from political control could in fact lead to less consumerism and more opportunity to cultivate Buddhist values.

The Dangers of Consumerism

Many contemporary Buddhists worry that capitalism promotes values that interfere with our ability to live the way Buddhism says we ought to. One of the biggest concerns is that capitalism leads to consumerism, and that consumerism makes it much more difficult for us to escape from greed and clinging. For instance, here's how Sallie B. King describes the Buddhist case against consumerism in her book, Socially Engaged Buddhism.

Thai Engaged Buddhist layman Sulak Sivaraksa and American Engaged Buddhists Stephanie Kaza and David Loy are representative of the Engaged Buddhist concern with consumerism. Their thinking on this subject, though developed in distinct ways by each, is based upon the same principles. Consumerism in their view is closely tied to capitalist economics—specifically the tenet of the latter that holds that economies must continually grow in order to be healthy. In order for an economy to grow, people must continually buy the goods that the economy produces. Consumerism is the ideology that supports continual economic growth by promoting consumption. Consumption is promoted of course by the incessant advertising to which people in the developed world are subjected, but according to these thinkers, it is also promoted more subtly by the ideology of consumerism, which teaches us to identify ourselves as “consumers,” to understand our lives as good if we have many possessions, and to conceive the purpose of our lives as the acquisition of more and more things. We commodify more and more of the things around us, thinking, for example, that a wedding or a burial needs to cost thousands of dollars or that (if we are Buddhist) we should fill our homes with Zen alarm clocks and Tibetan rugs. Our economic theory, in turn, supports this view by persuading us that the value of an object is the same as its cost. It leaves out of the equation what it can neither commodify nor quantify, such as clean air or harmonious neighborhood relations. These things literally do not count as economists make their calculations.

The Politics of Taste

I'm skeptical of this critique. For one, I think it dramatically overstates its case. Yes, some people in market economies are overwhelmed by a need to buy things as a source of happiness, are slaves to advertising, and see the price of something as the only measure of its value. But people like that, in my experience, are almost always other people. We rarely identify such problems in ourselves. Your purchases are nothing but mindless consumerism. My purchases, on the other hand, are all reasonable. This is a version of what I call "the politics of taste." Tastes differ, wildly. The music I adore is, to your tastes, irredeemably bad. The clothes I love, you think are ugly. The knick knacks you purchase are frivolities, but the ones I buy are important symbols of my spiritual practice. 

Disagreeing about tastes would be no big deal if it stopped there. The trouble is, we tend to take it a step further, arguing that opposing tastes aren't just bad, but dangerous and inauthentic. In other words, your tastes, to the extent they don't line up with mine, are a form of false consciousness you've been manipulated into by nefarious actors who stand to gain from them, and so the actions you take and the purchase you make aren't what you really want or need, and are actually harmful to yourself and others. Given that you're suffering from causes outside of your control, the rest of us need to help free you, and the tempting way to do that is via political action and control.

A better way to approach differing tastes is to simply accept them out of a sense of toleration and an embrace of pluralism. If someone wants to fill their home with Zen alarm clocks or Tibetan rugs, our default belief ought to be that they're doing so because they generally get pleasure and value out of it, rather than to see them as duped victims of a social conspiracy. To do otherwise is to arrogantly disrespect the dignity of our fellows. We should not be so convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of our own sense of self that we deny others the ability to live out their preferences, too. We can, and should, have conversations with our peers about tastes, especially if we see them as destructive, but that's a very different, and more compassionate, way to interact than simply assuming the inauthenticity of their preferences and using the state to forcibly prevent them from acting upon them.

Still, even if we grant the anti-capitalist argument from consumerism in a form similar to what King lays out, it only creates a further worry. Consumerism isn't limited to markets. There's a political kind, too. It's more dangerous and anything we would do to limit the reach of capitalist markets would only make it worse. Political consumerism is the topic of an essay I published this week called "Think Capitalist Consumerism is Bad? Wait Until You See Political Consumerism," which shows how each of the problems identified by Sallie King above are present in the political sphere as well, where they are much stronger, and more dangerous.

Markets as a Solution

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but there’s reason to believe the very markets that depend on us buying stuff will, in fact, provide the solution to consumerist worries about buying too much stuff. The political theorist and futurist Max Borders, in his book The Social Singularity, argues that rapid technological advancement, particularly in the fields of automation and artificial intelligence, along with the greater decentralization new technologies enable, will create a world of super abundance, a shift in buying habits from goods to experiences, and greater incentives to save instead of take on debt. He sets out strong arguments for why this is likely to happen. (The book is a delight and you should definitely pick it up if you want just those arguments’ persuasiveness for yourself.)

The world Borders describes is one where many of the concerns Buddhists have about capitalist consumerism are largely stripped away. We’re producing more efficiently, so doing less damage to the environment. We’re better able to live well without spending nearly as much of our time laboring. And we’re spending less time chasing happiness through buying stuff. Instead, we’re using our greater resources to purchase memorable and fun experiences, which we have more time for if we decide that’s how we’d like to use it. Yes, of course, experiences are impermanent, too, and the happiness they bring only temporary, but they are also experienced in the moment, enjoyed in the moment, and are made better by approaching them with the present moment awareness of mindfulness. 

Such a world also gives more time for practice. The Pure Land schools of Buddhism emerged in part out of a worry that ordinary people didn’t have time to seek enlightenment in this life because they were too busy just getting by. If innovation and market competition can mean any one of us can achieve a sufficient livelihood in less time, and in less dangerous ways, then we can begin to undo that Pure Land worry and make more time to set ourselves on the Eightfold Path. 

The way we get there isn’t through greater government control, however, because greater government control has always stood in the way of the innovation, competition, and rapid technological change that create this better world. States fall under the sway of entrenched interests, and entrenched interest benefit from the status quo. We can see this in those areas of our economy where prices continue to rise, such as health care, education, and housing. All three are among the most government controlled and regulated sectors of the economy, and so the forces of innovation and competition are unable to work their magic. If we want to get to the world Borders tells us is possible, a world better able to support and encourage the practices and values we embrace as Buddhists, the way to do it is through freeing markets, entrepreneurs, and innovators.