Consumerism is no longer all around us. It’s us. From mundane observations of daily impulsive buying, to sociological analysis of high status associated with having “stuff”. As often is the case, such ubiquity exudes a sense of commonness, and ultimately, also tragically, soon elicits acceptability.
“No, that’s absurd!” My classmate John in International Political Economy protested, “We are not mindless infants being coaxed, nay, indoctrinated by capitalism into psychotic buying spree. Granted, we consume a lot of stuff that we don’t need. But isn’t that just called higher standard of living? Sure I don’t have an innate demand for an iPod, a big screen TV, or a SUV – but as long as those stuff make me happy enough to decide to buy them, then it is a rational decision.”
Jon, incidentally a economics major (I can’t help but notice), seems to offer here a formidable defense that promises to exonerate all forms of consumerism. I buy ’em because I want ’em- such is the argument, often clothed in economic terms such as “increased utility”.
Let’s pause here and think for a moment. If the fact that you want to do something is enough to constitute the rationality of your decision to do it – then is there any decision at all that can be called “irrational”?
Eh..n..no? – your sense of logic mumbles, apprehensively under the menacing figure of common sense.
YES, your sense of logic is right (as always; and thus should be listened to more often.)
A decision already implicates free will. Because of that, if we accept Jon’s justification of rationality as “because I want it”, then rationality is built right into the concept of a decision itself. Thus, the two concepts of rationality and decision become inseparable, and thereby effectively negating the possibility of any irrational decision. And if there is not any irrational decision, then there is not any rational decision either – but only decision.
Let’s clear up this philosophical thicket a little bit. How about counterexamples (ah, they do wonders!) that prove the existence of “irrational decision”? Well, I just decided to buy my 5th house. “Doesn’t matter,” John says, “because that newest house clearly raises your utility enough for you to buy it (despite the decreasing marginal utility of being the 5th.)”
To push it further – well, I just decided to buy that 5th house, which pushes me into financial ruin. “Doesn’t matter,” John retorts, “if you had anticipated your financial disaster and yet still proceeded, it means that you had rationally weighed the utility of that 5th house against the potential troubles. If you hadn’t anticipated the mess due to incomplete information, it is even more rational at the deciding moment to buy the 5th house.”
To push it further still – well, I just decided to buy that 5th house, whose price is substantially higher than others available (which I am fully aware of.) “Doesn’t matter,” John persists, “you might have gained non-financial satisfaction from the transaction, such as the smugness of careless spending. Given the fact that no two goods are identical, the decision is even more defensible – there might just be something about this house that you like it.”
Thus, I have demonstrated that no matter how outrageous your decision is, you can still defend its rationality by resorting to say: “I did get satisfaction out of that.” And because rationality in this sense (i.e. Jon’s definition) does not give any new information about decision, “rational decision” is a redundant and meaningless term. Therefore, you cannot justify your buying decision as rational simply because you believe that you want that iPad, or because you believe it will make you happier. Such is a fatally flawed, yet plausibly presented, argument that is accepted by who-knows-how-many social science students that do not equip themselves with the precision and subtlety of philosophy.
Whereas a capitalistic society does not strive much to encourage your rationality, it spends substantial resources to facilitate your rationalization. The 2nd counterexample eerily harks back to the immediate cause of the Great Recession, in which banks helped people rationalize their spending with cheap credit and dubious financial advice. The 3rd counterexample hints at advertising, the infamous midwife of consumerism, whose goal is none but indoctrinating consumers with brand/design differentiation. There is no doubt that some design improvement or differentiation is concrete and legitimate – but think how many people are constantly trying to have the newest stuff just because it is cool to do so? That very attitude is the smoking gun of the consumerist indoctrination.
These last words should be reserved to clear away any suspicion that being a economics major somehow makes John less precise or less subtle. I do not mean to say so. However, for many economics dilettantes, terms such as “rational decision” or “increased utility” have been so frequently and axiomatically mentioned that their precise meanings are being abused. So just think twice about what you say, John. (That I did not tell him in class.)
Edit (09/22/10): Replace the Starcraft 2 and girlfriend counterexamples, which are neither relevant nor even funny.