Capitalism Is Not Responsible for Materialism

Instead, maybe we should look in the mirror.

Published in The Freedom Scale .

Over the last ten years or so, a trope keeps reemerging in conversations, both with people I know and in the broader national conversation. Boiled down to its essentials, it goes something like this:

Our society today is too atomized, materialistic, and shallow. Modernity is a mess.

What caused modernity?

The Enlightenment.

What caused our current condition of atomization?

The classical-liberal individualist ethics of the Enlightenment.

What caused materialism?

Modern capitalism, which was made possible by the Enlightenment.

Capitalism (and the Enlightenment more generally) are therefore the cause of messy modernity.

Strip everything away, and what this argument is really saying is that freedom and political equality are to blame. Is that really where we want to hang our hats?

I will explain…

Let us set aside, until later, questions about the political system that the Enlightenment fostered (democracy, for shorthand). Let us focus instead on its key philosophical products.

The Enlightenment said this:

Using reason and logic, we have deduced what our instincts have been telling us for a while now: That ontological authority is a fiction. That there are no fixed classes of highborn and lowborn. That, “None comes into the world with a saddle upon his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”

In most places, for most of human history, hereditary authority was the norm. It was simply accepted that some were born to rule and others born to be ruled. The Enlightenment set that notion on the path to extinction.

The results were profound. And arguably the most visibly potent results were economic in nature…

(“Capitalism” is a freighted term. For purposes of discussion, let us use the word “market.”)

Markets have existed as long as humans have been able to communicate and trade. Economic markets have, throughout history, varied in their degree of freedom. Some have been entirely free. Some have been more tightly managed by some form of government power.

Yet it was only after the Enlightenment that we began the economic rocket ride we’re currently on. Before that, for all of human history, nearly everyone lived on the modern equivalent of three dollars a day. In 1800, wealth (and thus living standards) suddenly hockey-sticked, and that figure rose by 2,900 percent—so suddenly that, from a bird’s-eye historical view, we can say that it happened almost overnight.


The Enlightenment’s gift was the recognition of ontological equality, and the growing political equality that emerged from that recognition. Once we began doing away with caste systems…once we began welcoming economic contributions from an ever-increasing portion of the human population…that is when the rocket ride began.

A lot has happened since—some of it really great; some of it monstrously awful. But are the philosophical revelations of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the open economic markets they engendered, really to blame for all the awful things?

The Marxists, and most of their leftist progeny, predictably say yes. “Capitalism,” in their parlance, ceases to be an economic term and becomes a synonym for…well, for pretty much everything that isn’t leftism. Western governments and their actions. Democracy. Exploitation. Baseball and apple pie. Colonialism. Poverty. Ever-cheaper consumer goods. Everything bad that happens in every country. It’s all “capitalism.”

As if exploitation hasn’t existed throughout all of human history. As if the USSR didn’t pick up right where the tsars left off and colonize everything they could get their hands on. As if poverty hadn’t been the norm for nearly everyone for nearly forever. The argument would be laughable if it weren’t taken so seriously in academia and throughout our institutions.

Nonetheless, the rest of us must not fall victim to making a sub-species of this same tendentious argument.

Without a doubt, we have gotten too materialistic. It’s pretty horrible to witness: Cheap garbage we don’t really need, but we keep buying. Consumption seemingly for the sake of consumption. An economy that depends on the sudden paroxysms of prodigious spending that occur at Halloween and Christmas.

We wonder—what about the things that really matter? Have we just become atomized spending machines? What happened to community?

And then comes the leap…

Capitalism produces an abundance of things to purchase.
People purchase too many things.
Therefore, capitalism is to blame for people purchasing too many things.

The first premise is sound. And we can take, for the sake of argument, the second to be as well. But does the conclusion follow from the premises? (Note: I am not straw-manning here—I hear this argument all the time.)

Markets come in two flavors: those that are regulated and controlled by a central power, and those that aren’t. The former type, of course, varies dramatically in the degree to which it is regulated and controlled.

The latter, however, is nothing more than this:

Human beings engaging in voluntary transactions with one another, under mutually agreed terms, free from external coercion.

Is that what you have a problem with, when you complain that we’ve gotten too materialistic? The phenomenon of free people engaging in mutually beneficial transactions? And would you get rid of that, or severely hamper it, in order to make us “less materialistic”?

First, we must ask ourselves, and each other, how much of the character of modern “capitalism” is the result of government controls, and its incestuous relationship with big business. What would things look like without all the perverse incentives created by government involvement in markets? We can speculate, but we just don’t know.

We haven’t had truly free markets for a long, long time, so at this point, we just don’t know what they would look like. Here too, we can only speculate.

But let us imagine, for the moment, a condition in which markets truly were free. And let us say that in that condition, we found that people were still (deemed to be) too materialistic. Even then, would that be the “fault” of free economic markets?

Or is freedom what you do with it?

Recently, Max Borders constructed a time-machine conversation with the late Frank Chodorov. Part of what Chodorov said spoke quite nicely to this issue:

Then there is the charge of “materialism.” Laissez-faire, of course, rests its case on abundance; if people want lots of things, the way to get them is through freedom of production and exchange. In that respect, it could be called “materialistic.” But, the laissez-faire economist as economist does not question or evaluate men’s desires; he has no opinion on the “ought” or “should” of their aspirations. Whether they prefer culture to gadgets, or put a higher value on ostentation than on spiritual matters, is not his concern; the free market, he insists, is mechanistic and amoral. If one’s preference is leisure, for instance, it is through abundance that his desire can be best satisfied; for an abundance of things makes them cheaper, easier to get, and thus one is enabled to indulge a liking for vacations. And a concert is probably better enjoyed by a well-fed aesthete than by a hungry one. At any rate, the economist refuses to pass judgment on men’s preferences; whatever they want, they will get more of it out of a free market than one commandeered by policemen.

But the critics of the nineteenth century blithely passed over this point, even as modern socialists ignore it. They insisted on attaching moral content to the free economy; it is a philosophy, they asserted, that puts a premium on things, rather than on cultural and spiritual values. Its emphasis on abundance is materialistic and the ultimate outcome of a free economy is a society devoid of appreciation for the finer things in life.

I have long been wanting to write about this issue, and that quote spurred me finally to do so, so thank you Max and Frank.

Chodorov is correct that free markets are amoral, in the sense that they are emergent phenomena that do not judge what people want. But they are the outgrowth of an entirely moral idea: that the human person should not be subject to force and coercion in his economic life any more than in his personal life.

Markets simply provide what people seem to be demanding. So are markets—and the moral notion of human freedom—to blame if people keep buying cheap crap?

Again…freedom is what you do with it.

We can even acknowledge the fact that markets don’t just respond to demand, they also create it by producing cheap crap and then convincing people to buy it. Fair enough. But—and please listen to this very carefully—


If you can identify some particular aspect of government’s control of markets, or their incestuous relationship with big business, that is producing excess materialism, then I will join you in decrying that, and seeking to end it.

But if you blame free-market “capitalism” for this issue, you are making, or at least are at risk of making, the underlying argument that

We cannot stop ourselves, so the only solution is to reduce human freedom.

Y’know…to save us from ourselves.

You can do anything with your freedom. You can be more spiritual. You can build communities. You can stop yourself from buying cheap plastic crap.

If you cannot stop yourself, or cannot create social momentum that convinces people to stop themselves, and your only solution is to reduce human freedom…

Count me out.

Christopher Cook writes at The Freedom Scale and guest writes at Underthrow.

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