Capitalism Does Not Require Ever-Expanding Consumption

A notable chapter in Deirdre McCloskey’s 2019 book, Why Liberalism Works, presents her response to the oft-repeated belief that the sustainability of market capitalism requires always-increasing levels of consumption and growth. Like a giant pyramid scheme, the argument goes, if the coveting and obsessive consumption end, the whole system would collapse.

We see variants of this claim repeated endlessly on the left as well as on the post-liberal right. On the Marxian left we get theoretical arguments of the ultimate disequilibrium of market economies. Among left-wing neo-Romantic postliberals, we get criticisms of consumer society and the degradation that capitalism’s growth culture wreaks on both the soul and the environment. Right-wing neo-Romantic postliberals sing pretty much the same song. Patrick Deneen argues that liberalism’s bargain that receives “the population’s full acquiescence” is one that promises “the ongoing delivery of increasing material prosperity for every member of society.” Similarly, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, never resisting the opportunity for florid overstatement, write of the need in capitalist systems for:

the oligarchy [to] seduce the masses to consume more and more shoddy goods whose appeal will, indeed, soon pale—causing them to seek to earn more in order to be able to buy a new variant or new seductive novelty.

Not so, suggests McCloskey. And, actually, the substance of McCloskey’s response is obvious. Yet I recall few other authors taking the point seriously enough to respond to it. Given the incessant repetition of the criticism among post- and anti-liberals, and how very incorrect it is, it undoubtedly has been a mistake to let it go largely unanswered. McCloskey remedies that oversight.

McCloskey makes, as I suggest above, what is an obvious response:

Nothing would befall the market economy in the long run, says the modern [classical] liberal economist, if we tempered our desires to a thrifty style of life, one beat-up Volvo and a little house with a vegetable garden, and a moderate amount of tofu and jug wine from the co-op.

Market economies are entirely consistent with humble, ungrasping lifestyles. McCloskey correctly points out that there is nothing inherent in the notion of market equilibrium that requires the consumption of “more and more” (as Milbank and Pabst would have it).

McCloskey’s point is that should people desire it, market capitalism presents no barrier at all to the widespread adoption of a humbler life style.

McCloskey is on solid ground here. While McCloskey is critical of the use of highly abstract mathematical models of economic equilibrium, here, I think, general equilibrium models are in fact valuable. As the name suggests, this class of models shows how everything fits together in equilibrium in market economies. They are in general mathematically abstract models. Yet, lest one think that the abstraction detracts from the argument rather than contributes to it, consider this: Setting aside the labor theory of value, Marx’s fundamental economic mistake—his recognition that capitalists are forced to reduce wages because of competition, and yet his failure to recognize that the same competitive pressures that force capitalists to keep wage-costs low also mean that lower wage costs would then be reflected in lower prices for the goods they’re selling, to the benefit of workers—is the error of making general equilibrium conclusions based on partial equilibrium analysis.

Gerard Debreu’s short albeit mathematically dense book, Theory of Value: An Axiomatic Analysis of Economic Equilibrium, for which he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, puts everything together in a rigorous form—producer and consumer behavior—and demonstrates the existence of general equilibrium in an abstract market economy. I take it to be the definitive theoretical refutation of Marx’s economics. (I should add that Debreu developed the theory along with other economists, most notably Kenneth Arrow, who also won the Nobel Memorial Prize in part for the work he did in this area.)

Notably, and critically in light of postliberal criticisms, Debreu’s derivation of general market equilibrium does so without requiring or resulting in continual growth in consumption. That is, the “masses” do not need to be “seduced” into buying more and more “shoddy goods” in order for market capitalism to work just fine.

Even neoclassical “growth” theory does not require more and more consumption as an inherent feature. In its simplest models the rate of economic growth equals the growth in population. That is, everybody consumes at the same levels over time. Per capita consumption does not change. Yet this characterizes an economic “steady state,” that is, one that is not collapsing.

McCloskey’s point is that should people desire it, market capitalism presents no barrier at all to the widespread adoption of a humbler life style. Consumption-driven arguments mistake contingency for essence.

Yet while widely repeated today, the error is not new. McCloskey points out that even Bernard Mandeville committed the same error in the early eighteenth century, although he was corrected almost as early:

Mandeville had argued that universal honesty would put locksmiths out of work and therefore would damage prosperity. Better for the hive to be dishonest. [George] Blewhitt replied, “The change [to an honest way of life must necessarily be supposed to be gradual; and then it will appear still plainer that there would arise a succession of new trades . . . in proportion as the trades in providing against roguery grew useless and wore off.” Spot on.

To be sure, while growth is not of the essence of market capitalism, there is a long commitment and expectation of economic growth in the U.S. A part of Ross Douthat’s argument in his recent book, Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, is that “economic stagnation”—that is, that Americans are not generally getting richer than their parents—is a part of the decadence he describes.

There are things to worry about with a lack of economic growth. In particular, if the economic pie is not growing, then distributive questions become purely redistributive questions. What one person gains another must have lost. With economic growth, distributive questions become less critical because everyone is eating more, no matter whether relative positions change.

At the same time, and interestingly, there is in McCloskey’s chapter an openness to—what should we call it? Steady state capitalism? Less-is-more capitalism? Christian capitalism? (Common good capitalism? Ha!) I don’t know.

McCloskey refers to “bleeding heart libertarianism” and “humane true liberalism,” which catches a part of it. But her focus on the “Great Expansion” throughout the bulk of her book is just a little different than the focus in this one chapter. To be sure, throughout the book McCloskey makes liberalism about more than just material prosperity. Beyond “the economic success of the modern world,” liberalism in McCloskey’s telling also brought increasing “kindness . . . toleration . . . inclusiveness . . . cosmopolitanism . . . and massive liberation of more and more people from violent hierarchies ancient and modern.” And yet the bulk of her book focuses on increasing economic wealth.

In this chapter, however, McCloskey suggests that the frenetic pace and consumption-focus of American economic life is not a result of market capitalism. Thus, she hints, it is something that we could consider giving up, or at least muting, perhaps for our own well-being. Perhaps the obsession that every generation be economically better off than the previous generation is an unhealthy expectation. I don’t want to put too many words in her mouth. But perhaps there are declining marginal payoffs to increased material prosperity after reaching a certain threshold (which is not to say it’s not critically important below the threshold, particularly as one gets closer to the “extreme poverty”). After this point, however, perhaps matters of the soul invite heightened attention, even if at the cost of giving up a bit of material prosperity.

The suggestion isn’t new. Tocqueville made much of America’s material “restlessness.” For him the obsession for “always more” was an American attribute, not a capitalist attribute. And one perhaps with a sting at the end when it is indulged:

The love of well-being [in democratic peoples] is there displayed as a tenacious, exclusive, universal passion, but its range is confined. To build enormous palaces, to conquer or to mimic nature, to ransack the world in order to gratify the passions of a man, is not thought of, but to add a few yards of land to your field, to plant an orchard, to enlarge a dwelling, to be always making life more comfortable and convenient, to avoid trouble, and to satisfy the smallest wants without effort and almost without cost. These are small objects, but the soul clings to them; it dwells upon them closely and day by day, till they at last shut out the rest of the world and sometimes intervene between itself and heaven.

I don’t think McCloskey would necessarily disagree.