The second chapter of Rod Dreher’s book is on consumerism. He begins by telling the appalling story of what the American people were urged by the president to do in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, which was, unbelievably, to “go shopping.” This was hardly a blood, sweat and tears exhortation. Instead of “we will fight on the beaches, we will fight in the countryside,” the mind was filled with other, considerably less inspiring, pictures. “We will shop in the factory outlets, we will shop on-line, we will shop in the major malls . . .” And if we don’t get out there with credit cards in hand, the terrorists win.
All true conservatives, as they should be, are wary of the ism. The problem is not consuming per se. Adam and Eve were told that they could eat from any tree in the garden, which meant that it was lawful for them to walk around and be consumers. The problem is the elevation of consuming into an ideology, or consuming more than you produce, or a means of creating a personal identity . . . in short, consumerism.
Dreher is balanced at this point. “There is nothing objectively wrong with material progress, and a great deal right with it” (p. 29). And he knows that he cannot really extricate himself from that progress. “Besides, there’s something funny about a guy tapping out a philippic against materialism on a state-of-the-art laptop computer” (p. 29). And he records the appropriate warning his wife gives him — “Just don’t get on your high horse and diss technology too much, because if we didn’t have that freezer and that microwave, I wouldn’t have the time or the energy to do nearly as much home cooking as I do” (p. 38). So Dreher is no Luddite, and he clearly has a bias toward balance — but I still wish some of the lines in this chapter were clearer.
We have to make the distinction between consumption (as a necessary calling for all creatures) and consumption as an idolatrous principle of social organization. A desire to get away from the former is actually to give way to the first temptation (“You shall be as God”). Only God does not consume. And the latter approach is to build a civilization with an ugly statue of Mammon in the public square.
And this sets up my first observation. Idolatry is a matter of the heart, and it can occur anywhere. It occurred in the Garden, when our first parents (surrounded by a perfect environment) decided to disobey God. It occurs in gardens, in deserts, in living rooms, in monasteries, in communes, and on the floor of the stock exchange. But it can also be avoided in all those places. Now, speaking of Eric Brede, Dreher says, “He points out that the philosophical developments that paved the way for the Industrial Revolution were advocated by English liberals, who are the true philosophical forefathers of most who claim the conservative mantle today” (p. 36).
This is quite true, but there are two issues involved here. When these English liberals (like Adam Smith) discovered how an “invisible hand” governs the production of all goods and services, they were actually discovering something about how God made the world. The division of labor really does affect the price of pins. But the second issue (where I believe Dreher and I would agree) occurs when people turn this simple discovery into an ultimate worldview, believing that this market therefore has the capacity or authority to set the price of everything — including the souls of men and women, or other permanant things like beauty, justice or holiness.
Great problems are caused when people blur these two categories. When this kind of thing happens, people believe that Newtonian physics is somehow an argument for Deism, or Einstein’s General Relativity is somehow an argument for moral relativism. The free market, as articulated by Smith, does not require us to believe that we can or should buy and sell the human soul. What Smith discovered has nothing whatever to do with that.
But if we blur this, we can blur it in both directions. One man can look at what Smith demonstrated, and then falsely “discover” something else. He slaps his forehead. “Man does live by bread alone, after all!” But knowing why bread costs a buck twenty five per loaf does not serve as an adequate premise for the conclusion, “There is no triune God.” But another man errs in the opposite direction. He can know, on the authority of Jesus, that man does not live by bread alone, but then believe that because he knows this great spiritual truth, that somehow price fixing by the goverment ceases to be an incoherent act.
What Smith discovered (apart from the worship of Mammon that some have advanced downstream from Smith) is that in the realm of economics water does not run uphill. Other men have discovered (in the physical realm) that water doesn’t run uphill there either, and it does not follow from this physical datum that God does not exist.
Now what water does and does not do, it does and does not do in all manner of settings. When men use water to cool the presses that they are using to print their pornography, that water does not run uphill. When I use water to baptize a child, as I did yesterday, it also does not run uphill. In the same way, the price of cocaine and the price of prayer books are both determined by the market, and the market does not tell us which we should prefer. The price of adoption and the price of abortion are both determined by the market. The market does not tell us which is the godly choice. Now if you have no god besides the market, then you have given yourself over to the worship of Mammon, and though you may be gained the world, what does it profit? You have lost your soul. But a man can refuse to worship Mammon and yet feel no obligation to argue with Adam Smith over how the price of cabbages came to be what it is.
Now I believe that Dreher does an outstanding job in reminding us that a man is more than the sum of his possessions. The warnings in this chapter against Mammonism are timely, and most needed. But I do believe that Dreher tends to blur the distinction between market forces in their “just the way it is” capacity and market forces in their “idolatrous reason for living” capacity. He rejects the second, as do I, but this seems to lead him to think that the former is more flexible than it is. But it isn’t — water simply won’t run uphill, however much it would be to the benefit of a hard-working conservative family living at the top of the hill.
Dreher tells a story of a family of his acquaintance that had enrolled their children in the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). When the Republican legislature there in Texas mandated cutbacks in the CHIP program, this particular family was forced to make some unpleasant choices, including putting the kids into government schools, and so on. In response, Dreher wrote, as he put it, a “scathing column” in which he ripped “the GOP legislature for the CHIP cuts” (p. 47).
“Well. Little did I know that I was a socialist . . . some of my fellow Texas Republicans pointed that out in a fusillade of stinging e-mails. I expected people to disagree with me, but I was not prepared for the contempt, the unshirted spite, that conservatives rained down on my head” (p. 47).
Now let me offer here the disagreement that Dreher was expecting, and keep it all within the bounds of civility. No unshirted anything — although I may point out that even on Dreher’s accounting, he started this particular imbroglio, what with his scathing and ripping column. But, whoever started it, there is something substantive here to discuss and debate. Dreher says that he learned that “for quite a few of my fellow Republicans, almost nothing matters more than keeping taxes low” (p. 47).
Okay, fair enough. But here is the problem. “Keeping taxes low” is a phrase that can be placed in different stories or contexts, and with radically different effects. Dreher objected to these cutbacks because of how the reduced government program would negatively affect a family that he knew. But the assumption in this is that the program existed for those who were struggling, and the people who were paying the taxes for it weren’t among those who were struggling, and that therefore the only possible reason they could have for wanting their taxes low was greed simpliciter. But I have been a pastor for many years, and this includes helping people with financial struggles. And for every lower or middle class family I have worked with that had financial struggles, for every “program cut” difficulty I have seen, I bet I could produce fifty “tax burden” difficulties. Dreher points to a family who put their children in the government school because of a program cut. But suppose I could point to numerous families who could afford tuition in a Christian school if their taxes weren’t so high. Now what? A program cut or a tax hike is a simple dollar amount. We have to put that dollar amount into a story, and when we do, we do so in accordance with a particular narrative standard.
“What kind of economy should we have, then? I don’t know. I’m a writer, not an economist. I do know this: we can’t build anything good unless we live by the belief that man does not exist to serve the economy, but the economy exists to serve man” (p. 49, emphasis his).
This last part is great. God doesn’t mind his people having money, He minds money having His people. God doesn’t mind His people having an economy, but He does mind if that economy, and all the cares of this world, choke out their spiritual life — and Jesus warned us repeatedly about this problem. But the first part of this comment didn’t make sense to me. What does it mean for a writer, writing on economic issues, to say, when challenged, “I’m a writer, not an economist”? I am a writer too, but I don’t just write nouns and verbs with no content. When I write, I am talking about something. And when I propose something, or I say something that has certain ramifications, I need to be able to defend the view that I am advancing by means of my writing.
In the illustration that Dreher used, his wife offered to help the other family out financially, “but Joan kindly said no, that they were going to find ways to handle it themselves” (p. 46). But this is the reverse of what actually happened. They weren’t handling it themselves, which is fine — they needed outside help. But the family in need here turned down help that was offered to them voluntarily, and turned to the government for help — but the help offered by the government was funded, as it always is, by people who would be fined or put in jail if they didn’t “contribute.” As one writer has noted, we need to stop saying “public and private” sector, and start saying “coercive and voluntary” sector.
We really have to look past the slogans that are put forward in the name of government compassion — “for the kids,” “helping working families,” and so on. Around the time of the Second World War, eighty percent of all black families had both a mom and a dad, a wonderful blessing for the kids. Twenty percent did not. Today that figure is reversed — the eighty and the twenty go the other way. Now, who is responsible for this? Why haven’t they been held responsible? And more to the point of this discussion, what slogans were used to cover up the devastation that our ignorant, but no less evil, compassion has wrought?
This is why knowledge of economics is not optional. I don’t worship Mammon because I believe my Bible. But after we have all agreed to not worship Mammon, how do we get real help to the people who really need it? I don’t put my hand on a hot stove because I know what happens after that. I don’t support government compassion for the same reason. This is not because I am opposed to charity and compassion — just the reverse. Judas, who kept the money bag, wanted to know why Jesus allowed expensive ointment to be poured on His feet, instead of requiring that amount to be given to the poor. Those who wanted to help the poor had their yard signs all ready. “For the kids! Judas for treasurer!”
“The tragic flaw in Western economics is that it is based on exploiting and encouraging greed and envy. Schumacher gave the devil his due, though, admitting that these ‘are not accidental features, but the very cause of its expansionist success.’ Why a tragic flaw? Because an economy grown from these poisonous seeds is bound to destroy the community of which it is part” (p. 51).
But here is the problem. When capitalists are idolaters, the problem is not in the capitalism. When a man murders another man with a knife, the problem is not found in the law of physics. Western economics drives how the supply chain works — efficiently. The law of physics ensures that a sharp knife enters a soft body efficiently. But murder is in the heart, and steel is the instrument. Idolatry is in the heart, and the market is the instrument. Dealing with idolatry by making sure regulations get underfoot in the market is like trying to prevent murder by mandating dull knives.
This anticipates something that I hope to develop in a future installment, but when it comes to lawful goods and services like widgets (no child porn), we should just turn the market loose. Let ‘er rip. On the price of eggs, books, and window shades, I am a libertarian. And what happens when people use their liberty to make, produce, advertise, sell, and consume truckloads of inane, stupid, and idolatrous stuff? For, Dreher would point out, they will do so. And I would agree. They will do so. But this demon of consumerism cannot be cast out with law. Law can and should restrain crime. Law is absolutely helpless when it tries to deal with sin. We need to find men of God with backbone who understand the gospel of grace, men who will preach the only salvation from sin, who will fill the pulpits of our churches and . . . let ‘er rip.