Consumer Culture

A few years ago Tom Friedman asked how it was that the Republicans represented both business and moralism, while the Democrats represented statism and hedonism: wouldn’t a more natural arrangement be for business and hedonism to be represented by one party, and statism and moralism in the other?

At the time I rejected the notion: the American tradition of self-governance at the expense of state power implies a spirit of self sacrifice, strong local communities and families. That self-governance carries over into the economic sphere as well as the political: if you are not free to earn money and spend it as you see fit you are not really free. Statism and hedonism go together because in the absence of people of character the state must step in and clean up the messes spineless people make for themselves, and spineless people are easier to rule.

That analysis is partly true, partly untrue. The consumer culture that businesses need to make money is a hedonistic culture that prizes having over being and the new over the old, and business is better if people’s mistakes are subsidized by the government. The elements of a culture based on character – individual toughness, devotion to family and neighborhood, a strong sense of tradition – are inimical to consumer culture. The elements of consumer culture are poor impulse control, individualism divorced from family and locale, and a constant forgetfulness of tradition.

So in reality there are two forces at work against a culture of character in America, business interests and government interests.


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