No, AOC, capitalism isn’t too ‘consumerist’ around the holidays
Critics of capitalism like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez look at Madison Avenue storefronts festooned with holiday decorations and see a “case in point” — a beautiful and spiritual time like Advent and Hanukkah is reduced to shopping, sales and accumulation of goods. Some of you might be feeling the same as you look at piles of ripped-up wrapping paper.
Indeed, it’s a common critique that a free-market economy inevitably becomes overly “consumerist” — that market forces lead people to value things only in a commercial context and miss out on humanity’s deeper values.
That old criticism unfortunately appears to be gaining new currency: A September Pew poll found 79% of Americans 18 to 29 years old have a “very” or “somewhat” positive view of socialism. A 2019 Siena College poll found a majority of young New Yorkers see no contradiction between socialism and being a good American.
The cultural observation that Americans can become too consumer-minded around the holidays becomes a springboard to attacking the market economy itself. Somehow we’re to believe that Americans would be less materialistic, less commercial and less superficial if only the state played a larger role in society’s economic transactions.
Don’t buy it for a second.
Free marketeers have cause to be optimistic this holiday season. Here are three reasons:
First, a chronic case of the glass half-empty. One can understand seeing the exorbitant number of TV commercials and shopping-mall parking challenges and concluding we’ve reduced the holidays to a consumer tale. But why not remember people are buying the vast majority of those items for friends and family members they love? Why not focus on the community and bonds of kinship that will be celebrated around holiday meals and at festive occasions until we ring in the new year?
Are a few people running up their credit cards too much? Surely it happens. But doesn’t the miracle of a market economy providing more convenience, access and opportunity to enjoy gift-giving and gift-receiving than ever before transform the holiday season’s material and commercial aspect into a deeper, more communal experience?
Second, a naïve and misguided belief about how things “could” be better. In what way does a more interventionist, regulated, governmental economy become more suited to matters of the heart? How does limiting choice, exchange, opportunity and market forces lead people to greater community, family and faith? Has that been the experience of holiday celebrations in the Soviet Union, Red China, Cuba or Venezuela? Market liberty does not assure us of greater commitment to friends and family, but the absence of it certainly impedes our ability to connect to friends and family. History couldn’t be clearer.
Third, a failure to appreciate the distinctly American (Tocquevillian) vision for a free society. We must remember that advocacy of free enterprise must always be tethered to a society of virtue and character. The transcendent beauty and value of life has never been threatened by material prosperity and commercial growth, but nor is it born of such, either.
The deeper things in life that give us real meaning must always be top of mind. From biblical teaching to Aristotle to Aquinas to Adam Smith, those who believe in private property and free exchange are never at odds with the crucial concepts of mutual cooperation and neighborly love. In fact, a market economy facilitates and fosters them far more than any competitive system the world has ever seen.
So rather than looking at crowded malls and excessive wrapping paper and becoming discouraged, we ought to let the holiday season reignite gratitude and optimism for the free market.
Gratitude seems warranted for a 40% decline in extreme poverty over the last 40 years. It seems warranted for the unprecedented progress we’ve made in quality of life, from medicine to water to food to electricity. It seems warranted for the luxuries we now consider necessities and the necessities we now take for granted — all because of a market economy.
This holiday season, avoid the “Bah! Humbug!” so many throw at capitalism and instead remember the joy in the world that a free and virtuous society represents.
David L. Bahnsen is a wealth manager, a frequent Fox Business guest and the creator of There’s No Free Lunch, a book, video series and economic course offering the moral case for free markets.