6 Responses to The Problem of Plenty

  1. Joe Hargrave says:


    You are hitting upon a problem that is a major theme of my own social thinking – the problems of abundance and technological advance. I’ll take this opportunity to plug my essay again.


    “Surely, no one consciously thinks, “I have a good job and a house, so it doesn’t really matter if I tell off my cousin whose wife I can’t stand and stop visiting my grandmother who always lectures me about how I live my life,” but the fact of abundance makes the lessening of these ties more possible.”

    I wouldn’t be so surprised if there were people who DID think these things consciously, however.

    I believe there is a direct link between the consumerist revolution of the 1950s and the sexual revolution of the late 1960s.

    I plan on writing much more about this topic in general in the future. For now I think we have to keep in mind, as well, that the current and previous Popes have called on people living in wealthy nations to “moderate their lifestyles” for the sake of those living poor nations, and have condemned modern consumer culture, which frequently does little else but relentlessly appeal to our lower natures for profit.

  2. I wouldn’t be so surprised if there were people who DID think these things consciously, however.

    Well, you may be right, though I’d think often it happens in a backwards sort of way. For instance, in Victorian novels (a form for which I have a certain weakness) one runs into many people who would gladly tell off Old Aunt So-and-so, if only it weren’t so essential to suck up to her because of the inheritance. At that point, I would imagine there’s already little virtue to the observances to community which are paid, since they’re done for the wrong reasons, and so it is but a short step from there to people who find themselves in an income-based rather than inheritance-based economy feeling much more free to ignore people they don’t life — whether it be in the family or the neighborhood.

    I’m not really sure how one gets around this. Christ often warns us of the dangers that wealth represents to the soul. I would think this is because wealth gives people more ability to sin without material repercussions — and people being what they are, temptation often leads to sin.

    Yet at the same time, not only does it seem an odd humanitarian approach (arguably antithetical to the common good) to wish everyone back into relative poverty, but it wouldn’t work anyway. Given the ability to be so astoundingly productive on a historic scale, the number of people who are seriously willing to say, “I could easily work at a job and make enough money to provide my family with a house, two cars, air conditioning, a TV, a computer, a few hundred books, and an annual vacation — but instead I think I’ll forgo that to share my parents’ two room house until they die and do subsistence farming with no electricity or vehicles because that will require me to exercise greater familial solidarity” is vanishingly small. The only people who seem to have any success with this are the most cloistered monastics and the most serious Amish.

    Which is, I think, why the Church is right to focus on the importance of each individual person acting morally within the situation he finds himself, rather than trying to describe some sort of ideal economic/social system.

    Though I must admit, I do have a certain admiration for the Amish in this regard, though I would not by any means choose to follow their example.

  3. Joe Hargrave says:


    I just don’t think it is fair to jump from the call of the Papacy for us to moderate our lifestyles to the conclusion that this means we must return to material poverty.

    I think we both agree that there is excessive consumption in America. Do we need 50 different fast food chains? Do we need Hummers? Do we need, for that matter, millions of pronographic websites? Of course not. But there is a “demand” for these things, and in an amoral market philosophy, that means someone also can and probably should produce and sell them.

    To moderate our lifestyles means to cut down the excesses and to share the surplus with those who don’t have one. I favor direct, social investment and distributist policies as opposed to mere wealth spreading. But even so, I do believe that there has to be a redistribution.

    It also means to take a firmer stand against amoral consumerism, against the ceaseless appeals made to our lower nature, to our violent, lustful, selfish desires. Just because something is marketable should not make it socially acceptable. Nothing bothers me more than those who peddle poison, especially to the children of overworked parents, under the protection of some misguided notion of “liberty”. That which is destructive of the higher self, and of society, is ultimately destructive of true liberty, freedom from sin and vice.

    Finally, the Church may not have an “ideal system” but it has been consistent in its support for the distribution of property and decision making power to more workers, the decentralization of vast sums of concentrated wealth, and now as we see, the financial system that has become detached from the production of real value and the satisfaction of real needs.

  4. j. christian says:


    In these discussions of excessive consumerism, there is always the problem of ascribing moral agency to macro outcomes that are based on micro decisions. To use the fast food example: No, maybe no one needs 50 different fast food outlets, but say I stop at one once because I’m hungry and there’s nothing else around; am I part of the problem? Have I been “consuming excessively” even if it’s a one-time thing? Then multiply my personal decision by 500 every day, and you can see how these relatively simple decisions can be made without much of a moral dimension behind them. (I suspect Darwin might express this better, knowing that he works with data. Individual data points have ways of aggregating into distributions, and these distributions have little to do with moral agency. Things that are black and white to an individual become smooth curves when grouped with millions of other people…)

    What would shape the morality of every little choice I make about my consumption? Does this business make its products with child labor in China? Are they clearing rainforest for grazing land? Do they give to Planned Parenthood? There might be obvious cases to avoid, but to process all that information about each and every decision is daunting, to say the least. We certainly try to avoid cooperating with evil, but when the “evil” becomes so attenuated, how do we act? And even if none of these circumstances existed, what is morally objectionable about it? When does consumption become excessive? When I do it, it’s not, but when a million people do it, it is?

    I’m not an expert on Catholic teaching on this subject, but it seems that, when it comes to the individual (and that is where the moral agency matters, after all), one’s soul can be disposed toward consumption as an end or a means. I *think* I know the difference when I see it, but there’s an element of subjectivity there. I try to be charitable to the relatives who gave their daughter a Mercedes when she turned 16, but I’ve got this inkling that something’s a little disordered there… Want vs. need, how do we know? Maybe the answer isn’t “Live Amish,” but is it Amish Lite? How far down do we go???

  5. To be clear: It’s not that I think we should return to material poverty. I don’t. It’s just that I think so long as we don’t return to material poverty, people will continue to have the option of falling into excessive consumption (and the various personal and social evils that permits) and people being what they are, as long as they have the option they often will.

    Now, there’s stuff like pornography which I’d like to see legally stamped out to the greatest extent possible (which in the world of the internet may still not be very much) but it strikes me that with some of these other things it’s hard to do anything at a wider level — what we really need is for people to change the way they think about life and material wants. (Realistically, that’s the only way to really get rid of porn either — but one can at least try to use the arm of the law there as well.)

    So for instance, I wouldn’t see it as a problem that there be fifty fast food chains. I’m all for variety. Heck, I’d enjoy it even more if we mostly had individual fast food places that weren’t chains. (And if Bangalore Express and Kabobs-To-Go would open up right down the street from where I work!) But the problem in regards to health and consumption is when people fall back on these places too often, spending too much of their money on it and eating too much cheap junk instead of “real food”.

    What bothers me is not necessarily the overall trend of huge numbers of fast food joints, so much as the fact that behind that overall trend often hide individual data points of people who feed their kids a double stack, a large fries and a 42oz drink three or four times a week. Not only is that bad for the kid’s health, but it in turn may mask a breakdown in family life where people aren’t taking (or having) the time to cook real food for each other.

  6. Joe Hargrave says:


    I think we are victims of consumerism as much as we are perpetrators. Yes, its true – they will keep making it as long as we keep buying it. But at a certain point, you cut the addict off. And I include myself in all this.

    It is the producers and promoters of excessive consumer goods that are primarily to blame. But it is also our responsibility to develop alternatives – alternative lifestyles and communities where we regulate what goes in and out of them. Ave Maria town was a promising idea but I don’t think its launched escaped the gravitational pull of consumerism. Part of that is because of the stinking ACLU, which threatened legal action if the town banned pornography (as if it were a damned constitutional right). But part if it is also the shallowness of its ideological underpinnings and the extent to which it still looks like any other American suburb, which is to say, laden with excessive consumerism.

    Want versus Need: we MUST know. People in Canada and Europe live on less than we do, and people in other countries on even less than them. I think it would be just… wrong to deny that many Americans believe they have a right not to as much as they need, but as much as they can theoretically consume.

%d bloggers like this: