Sentletse Diakanyo
Sentletse Diakanyo

In defence of conspicuous consumption

A debate has been raging recently, led by self-appointed economic moralists and social activists, who have been on a war-path against conspicuous consumption; something they perceive as unethical consumerism and an affront on the moral principles of society. Anyone with a shade of active grey-matter would realise that such moral arguments are absolute nonsense.

This futile moral debate was sparked by people who attempted to reconcile the pursuits of individual interests with general interests of society. They sought to invent a moral problem where none existed and further to impose their misguided notions of propriety on our societal virtues. Myopic approach to broader issues of society can never be helpful.

An English jurist, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in “The Principles of Utility” addresses the idea that the moral worth of individual actions is determined solely by their usefulness in maximising utility, which is the measure of relative satisfaction. Bentham’s philosophy recognises that society is a merely the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it; that common interest is a function of the interests of individuals. It is common cause that the pursuit of happiness by a collective of individual members of society would result in the delighted society. Individualism and utilitarianism thrive under capitalism as participation is voluntary and an individual choice as afforded by civil liberties.

In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) maintained that human society is organised along the lines of an implicit contract between members of society, and that the terms of this contract are rightfully decided by the general will of the people. Our social activists against conspicuous consumption would appear to subscribe to the absurd notion of economic collectivism, which is an ideological concept of communism and socialism. The natural assumption by proponents of these archaic philosophical precepts is that society should reach a natural equilibrium as we are all intrinsically linked through a common umbilical cord.

The foolishness of economic collectivism is that some things should be owned by all of society and used for the benefit of all rather than being owned by just individuals; thus resulting in the utilitarian pursuits to be frowned upon and portrayed as offending moral sensibilities of society. The German economist and philosopher Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) had promoted an absurd notion that material happiness can be obtained through organised collectivism, as though there is general congruence of the needs and aspirations of individual members of society.

In an article published in the January 1944 Reader’s Digest titled “The Only Path To Tomorrow”, the Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) aptly said, “collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group — whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called the common good”.

During the Gilded Age, an era of rapid economic and population growth in the United States, the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857 – 1929) published a book titled The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions in 1899. It was in this book that Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption”. Veblen argues that economic life is driven not by notions of utility, but by social vestiges from pre-historic times, which somewhat challenged the utilitarian philosophy advanced by Bentham before him.

Veblen defined conspicuous consumption as the waste of money and/or resources by people to display a higher status than others. Our social activists, like Zwelinzima Vavi, would use these feeble arguments on the wastefulness of such consumption to support their moral sentiment. The economic consequences of conspicuous consumption render such argument futile. Consumer spending account for two-thirds of our economic activity and given the slow recovery from the recent recession, consumer spending, whether conspicuous or not, is what helps boost economic growth.

However, the argument supporting the causal factor of conspicuous consumption as described by Veblen may hold some water. A study was conducted in the US in 2007 which revealed that black people and Hispanics devote larger shares of their expenditure bundles to visible goods (clothing, jewellery and cars) than do comparable whites. This study validates what Veblen described as “economic life driven by vestiges of pre-historic times”. Historically black people in the US had been subjected to centuries of slavery and racial prejudice even after the abolishment of slavery. Their social existence had been of humiliation and of impaired dignity. The natural psychological response to such history in an era of freedom and prosperity is for black people to find means to affirm their social status as equal to any other. This is not unique to the US. We have also observed such a trend develop in South Africa.

Those who antagonise conspicuous consumption as an affront on morality are hypocritical. One cannot seek economic growth and wish to reap the resultant benefits but on the other hand vilify the very drivers of such growth. A study by the Bureau of Market Research at the Unisa in 2008 concluded that the number of South Africans who have joined the black middle-class increased by 3 million between 2001 and 2007. At the time, the co-founder and director of the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing, John Simpson, said: “We have found them fairly resilient consumers amid recession.”

The rising black middle-class was touted as “black diamonds”, and credited with contributing to the buoyancy of the economy. Why then does Vavi wish to stall the engine of the economy? Where does he think “decent jobs” will emanate from without economic growth? When Vavi says that conspicuous consumption is “spitting in the faces of the poor”, he exposes his ignorance of the elementary principles of economics and assumes the poor do not inspire to greater success and wealth.

The ridiculousness of the moral debate of conspicuous consumption intensified when Jacob Zuma said sushi parties where “a moral challenge that the ANC needed to tackle”. Morality imposes a choice between good and bad. The purported social immorality of conspicuous consumption implies that some form of harm or damage is caused to society, while none of the proponents of economic morality are able demonstrate such harm or damage to individual members of such society. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) wrote: “Society … cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another.” Where rampant spending and display of wealth harm society, surely there would be inherent measures in the economic system that regulate such behaviour.

Smith in his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations published in 1776 appreciated that the pursuit of individual self-interest was necessary for economic development. Those who are spurred into social activism against conspicuous consumption by envy and resentment should perhaps redirect their energies into productive economic activities in order to improve their miserable existence. The vastness of the income inequality is an indication of transforming economy. Those in possession of wealth, in a capitalist society of ours, ordinarily have greater means to exponentially grow such wealth, while the rest slowly emerge from destitution. The transition into the middle-class can only mean an upward trajectory in the economic status of those Vavi is claiming to represent. Politicians should not hinder progress of the wealthy for political expediency because their success embarrasses and exposes the truth about the inequalities brought about by our economic system.

The decline in consumer inflation in the recent period is an indication of the need for consumer spending to rise in order to spur economic growth and generate much talked about jobs. The SA Reserve Bank dropped interest rates in order to stimulate consumer spending. Though it is widely acknowledged that the majority of consumers are heavily indebted and utilising the lower interest rate environment to service debt than spend, it should be equally accepted that conspicuous consumption by the wealthy few is a necessary complement for lack of spending by highly-indebted consumers.

Moralists should study elementary economics or get a life that is incomprehensible for them.

  • http://aol fergie

    @Sentletse, this was a very beautiful article and I enjoyed it very much. However, I think that you should be more diplomatic with your pen toward others.

  • ian shaw

    Morality? no, it is political, not moral. White colonialists are being castigated for flaunting their “ill-begotten gains” while “black diamonds” do exactly the same since their gains were based on political connections.

  • Paul

    I think Vavi et al direct their indignation at the POLITICIANS and politically connected who use our tax money to enrich themselves to the detriment of all of us, especially the poor. These people are supposed to be servants of the people, not their masters. I don’t begrudge anyone who enjoys the fruits of their labour if it is gotten honestly and fairly. But politics doesn’t pay that well so the flaunting of ill-gotten gains in public spits in the face of all of us.

  • Chris Bet

    This is where I stopped reading:
    “Anyone with a shade of active grey-matter would realise that such moral arguments are absolute nonsense.”
    Statements like this do not speak in favour of the author. Maybe the article would have been interesting? Who knows.

  • http://www.ycl.org.za Buti Manamela

    Do we agree that the actions of individuals in society have an effect, negative or positive, on the collective? If we do, why then should we allow Individuals to act in their self interest outside of the collective if their actions will have such effects. Any one pursuing their own good cannot and should not be allowed, especially if their actions are to the detriment of the collective…

  • MLH

    Good grief, I thought this must be Bert Oliver from the tone! Sorry, I didn’t finsh…

  • WTF

    This article barely leaves the twilight zone of rambling semi-sanity, but the problem is this: conspicuous consumption is about consuming not because you have a need to consume, but consuming for the sake of gaining others’ approval. That is not really what capitalism and the free market was ever about. The kind of goods associated with conspicuous consumption have an incredble energy and resources impact to produce. If those resources were freed up slightly, more production capacity could be dedicated to making necessary items at cheaper prices so that the overall standard of living could be improved for many more people. “Because I can” is no longer a satisfactory answer when one is asked why one is consuming sushi off a woman’s scantily-clad body on a planet which could only support 2.5 Billion of its 7.5 Billion inhabitants without the aid of fossil fuels. It’s not about morality – it’s about the sensible use of resources. If you agree with conspicuous consumption, you are in the same frame of mind as Marie “let them eat cake” Antoinette and we know what the downtrodden masses did to her when they got sick of watching her brand of conspicuous consumption…

  • Thandinkosi Sibisi

    WHAT EXACTLY IS “CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION”

    Sentletse is basically opposing people such as Zwelinzima Vavi who portray “conspicuous consumption” as “immoral”. By implication Sentletse’s position, “In defence of conspicuous consumption” is that “there is nothing “immoral” with conspicuous consumption”[This is not the same as saying there is nothing "wrong" with "conspicuous consumption" as "right" and "wrong" need not only be defined in moral terms but that is another argument]

    I am not much of a sociologist (my training is in science education) and I pledge no allegiance to any of the “great ideologies” such as “Socialism” and “Capitalism”.However any debate on the good or evil of “conspicuous consumption” needs a definition that clearly demarcates what IS and what IS NOT “conspicuous consumption”

    The definition offered by Sentletse that “conspicuous consumption as the waste of money and/or resources by people to display a higher status than others” is simply not good enough for this purpose. Two questions are sufficient to show the weakness of this definition.

    (1)What is a “waste of money”? Suppose a well paid CEO of a finance institution with an annual salary in the millions decides to buy an expensive house in an exclusive suburb and a Rolls Royce, is that “wasting money”? Should s/he rather buy a modest house and a Tata Indica? Hence;
    (2)Does the same label ["conspicuous consumption"] apply when referring to a “mansion” owned by a “tenderpreneur” as well as a “real mansion” owned by Bill Gates?

  • Belle

    The wealth gap can never be closed through conspicuous consumption: if you consume your wealth you are obviously not growing it.

    Agree, though, that conspicuous consumption is not a moral issue … just a pathetic indication of a lack of self-worth as you say. Money is simply a boring necessity. It cannot buy ability, talent, or personal growth.

    However I love those who are driven to consume conspicuously: they are fodder for my growing investments. So go for it, Kenny and Khanyi! Spend your way through all those glittery shops, and feed my share portfolio. But forgive me for not partaking in the tedious behaviour of buying expensive and unnecessary products. I have vegetables to grow, bach to play, books to read, dogs to walk, people to meet, places to visit, and time is short.

    As for being Either a consumer, Or a communist, well, Sipho, your logic really failed on that point.

  • nguni

    Ho-hum, all that research to defend bling?
    You must be bored. – I know I was, after reading the first paragraph..

  • SH

    @Sentletse – and maybe those who are au fait with elementary economics should study morality? It might be an idea to consider the consequences of a large group witnessing extravagence while they wonder where money for the next meal will come from All this while they wait in trickle down heaven (speaking from own past experience, not presuming to speak obo anyone else).

    I dare you to go and explain this logic to people in the unemployment queue. And while you are at it, explain why a few must gorge themselves so that they can shit compost to dump on the heads of the hungry.

    Stop quoting middle and upper class theorists – talk instead to someone without a job – they will tell you about the theory of hunger, humiliation, exclusion – you seem to have forgotten, or maybe you never knew it.

    And why should everyone aspire to conspicuous consumption? How about a point at which one has e ‘enough’? Why make as if ‘more, more, more’ is the only way to exist?

    The fact that there is to date no alternative economic system in which ‘everyone’ can have ‘enough’ to live in dignity, AND enterprising individual’s still pursue their own interests simply means that those with the means to experiment with an alternative [responsive to the groundtruth - not imported], are in no rush to do so because they already benefit from the status quo (and that includes all of us in the middle class – whether we like it or not).

  • Economist

    A well-researched piece. There is one small flaw in your argument though: you never provide any evidence that *conspicuous* consumption is what leads to growth. In fact, you don’t even provide evidence to suggest that consumption – as opposed to the alternative, savings – leads to growth. Of course consumption is part of GDP, but does consumption increase GDP over the long run? Actually, most research suggests that high savings rates are important for growth. Since these are reduced by excessive consumption, the evidence is against you.

    In short, your conclusion is false and I would be careful of calling other people hypocrites if you are going to allow your ideological biases to substitute for good argument.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/bryanmukandi Bryan Mukandi

    With respect Sentletse, your argument is either disingenuous, or at the very best, seriously flawed. You’re conflating separate issues. As I see it, the so called ‘moralists’ you bring to task are attempting to grapple with the question of what a good society aught to look like. You, on the other hand, are shooting them down on the basis of your view of how SA should get to that ideal, ignoring what that destination should be. For example, it seems that for you conspicuous consumption is justified as a means of sustaining and growing the economy. But that result could also be achieved by enforcing redistributive policies that lead to the ability of even more people to engage in economic activity (a social democratic system that has worked for the Scandinavians); or of the state to invest in greater infrastructural development (a Keynesian approach). The same amount of money that is currently being spent on sushi parties and imported luxury cars could go into nation-building endeavors.

    What is most problematic though, is the implication that you aren’t a moralist yourself. You’re advocating an implicit moral position, while denigrating the likes of Vavi for expressing theirs. The only real difference between you and Vavi is that you have different ends in mind; you’re both ‘moralists’. Your greatest good seems to be this abstract concept called the economy, while Vavi’s – whether or not he goes about achieving his end in the best way – is people.

  • Kweku Hanson

    Yes! Let them eat cake, I say! How did that work out for ya, Marie Antoinette?

  • Kweku Hanson

    Oh, sorry. Another thing. If you copy a paragraph verbatim from Wikipedia, at least give credit.

    Welcome to the information age!

  • Grant

    I haven’t read an article that made me laugh so hard for years. You’re like a pre-schooler trying to explain the reason for Lehman Brothers’ collapse…each sentence made your lack of any knowledge whatsoever more apparent…very funny, keep them coming Sentletse!

  • David Harris

    Interesting points, Sentletse, but the issue I (and a number of my black, middle class, ‘coconut’ acquaintances) have is the sheer level of folly attached to some of excess.

    Where is the point in parking three new BMWs outside what can only be described as a shack? Why are 30-year olds sponging off their parents so they can maintain their car payments?

    It requires real wealth before the conspicuous consumption mentioned in your article becomes possible. Wealth is built through the gradual accumulation of assets in line with one’s income (or, in SA, by getting the right tender at the right time?), not by thoughtless splashing around of a precious resource, viz. money.

    Surely aspirational young blacks would be better off spending the money on a suburban house and a small car, not a new Breitling to match the GTi?

  • Johnathan Haze

    You are absolutely right. Instead of decrying the conspicuous consumption of the the people Mt Vavi and Mr Zuma are referring to, we should be sitting at the feet of these people trying to learn from them.

    Because, measured by the breathtakingly brief time they acquired their wealth, they have outperformed lesser geniuses such as Bill Gates. While the invisibility of their operations would elicit the envy of Warren Buffet.

  • tlotleng

    Great arcticle Sentletse.

  • http://www.liesunpacked.blogspot.com Charlie Mingas

    What is ridiculous is your weak argumentation, logical inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies which are the hallmark of this drivel masquerading as a well contemplated opinion piece.

    “Where rampant spending and display of wealth harm society, surely there would be inherent measures in the economic system that regulate such behaviour.” Really? Like the regulatory measures that allowed Wall Street bankers to gamble away trillions of dollars in people’s lifesavings which led to the near collapse of the entire world economy, right?

    “Politicians should not hinder progress of the wealthy for political expediency because their success embarrasses and exposes the truth about the inequalities brought about by our economic system.” The illogic of this statement is demonstrated by the fact that here you say that the system is flawed yet in the same breath you sing its praises.

    “Those in possession of wealth, in a capitalist society of ours, ordinarily have greater means to exponentially grow such wealth, while the rest slowly emerge from destitution.” Please give one example where “trickle down economics” has actually worked…

    “Consumer spending account for two-thirds of our economic activity” It is emerging that such a model is unsustainable in spurring economic growth as is being demonstrated by the current slide of the US economy. Economies that are growing exponentially now, eg China and India, are the ones whose economies are based on production, high rates of saving and investment rather than consumption. Another myth that reality clearly is debunking.

    Your arguments are unsubstantiated, hence trash!

  • HD

    Just a quick reply with some links that you can consult.

    You need savings, which leads to investment which leads to capital accumulation and increased production – real economic growth.

    See consumption myth:

    http://mises.org/daily/4193

    The problem with many Western economies is that they have low savings and have stopped creating stuff and have stead bought into the whole Keynesian argument of unsustainable spending (government/private) and illusion that financial markets are wealth.

    For a criticism of central planning and socialism rather approach it from the coordination problem angle:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_calculation_problem

  • X Cepting

    I quite agree with: “the pursuit of individual self-interest was [is] necessary for economic development” but, please explain how the purchase of clothing and electronics manufactured (mostly) in the East, cars and jewellery manufactured (mostly) in Europe and America helps create jobs in South Africa? If you mean growing their economies, yes, I quite agree.

    Then, please explain how flagrant spending of money meant for public enterprises like health, policing, education on improving German, Chinese, French, Italian and American economies helps create jobs in South Africa? Why not do an indepth study into the manufacturing industry in South Africa through the last decade and honestly tell us, when leaving illusionary products out of it, is mfg on the increase? Or have a small privileged percentage of South Africans simply become the salesmen for badly made goods from the East, skimming a small profit of the top? I am sure this create lots of jobs in China, their economy shows this. The problem is, to get those unemployed people to buy (25% at latest) you have to give them disposable income in the form of a wage first. So, yes, I agree, spending grows OUR economy if we buy LOCALLY made goods. Perhaps Cabinet could set an example? The Joul would nip through traffic, at a fraction of the cost (we hope).

  • X Cepting

    Also, VIP motorcades would be quite unnecessary when the general public knows that the vehicle being driven by said MP is helping to feed their family for the month. Instead of fashion junkies our government could become trend-setters. Like ex-President Mandela did with his shirts. I bet that for a brief period, local cotton mills showed a profit. That is, if anyone bothered to check.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/sentletsediakanyo Sentletse Diakanyo

    It is clear that some people want to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to economics. Savings are good, but not particularly helpful when the economy is in recession. High level of savings can be harmful to the economy as that leads to deflation. Consumers wait for prices to fall further before buying goods.

    Consumer spending is the lion-share of GDPs of most countries. When the economy is in recession, it’s logical that such spending rise to stimulate growth.

    Why should consumers who have accumulated their wealth legitimately be criminalised for spending it? Whether it’s on imported goods it’s irrelevant. Traders of those imported goods employ locals. That’s job creation.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/sentletsediakanyo Sentletse Diakanyo

    @HD, the notion that savings lead to capital accumulation and therefore wealth, is valid. But also consider the structure of individual economies and where they are in the cycle. You cannot encourage massive savings during a depression or a recession. That’s won’t be helpful.

    When the economy is growing at a healthy rate, consumers should be encouraged to save.

  • brigs

    I have nothing against the pursuit of self interest, to a point, Everyman is entitled to in enrich himself in a manner which seems fit, and right legally. But there comes a point, when in many societies it is considered that having reached a certain level of wealth, one aught to use some of that wealth to enable others in what ever manner one sees fit. Be that enablement, the support of a charity, or mearley helping out a poorer relative. Or picking up garbage in improving the neighbour hood. However what one sees more and more here is the gratuitous accumulation of wealth for the sake of it. To the benefit of no one but one’s self. If you have any extra cash at all and you live in south africa and feel not the slightest inclination to afford help to someone with less than you. One would seriously wonder about the state of you moral integrity.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/sentletsediakanyo Sentletse Diakanyo

    @BUTI…you ought to take cognisance of the fact that “society” is a “fictitious” concept. Without individuals, there can be no society. If the pursuit of self-interest is good for individuals, logic dictates that “society” should have nothing to complain about, as that society is the sum of those happy individuals.

    Obviously actions that cause harm to the next person cannot be helpful. I want to know how driving a Ferrari during a recession is harmful to “society”. Parking it in the garage will surely not put bread in someone’s table. It’s wear and tear will ensure that some mechanic somewhere has a job and that tyre fitment centres among other automotive business also benefit.

    The obsession with the notion of collectivism is not helpful. We’re not a communist nation, though you’d perhaps wish otherwise.

  • HD

    @Sentletse

    I don’t want to start a mini-debate within your post. But there are very good arguments against Keynesian bailout / money printing approach of Paul Krugman & Ben Bernanke aka Helicopter Ben. (Admittedly not all very politically appealing)

    For one (and focussing on results rather that theory) despite the bailout and all the dollars in the system we are not seeing the tide rise or the multiplier kicking in. Companies are still not hiring and investors are just taking the money abroad to emerging markets.

    As usual despite all the political rhetoric, the system just again bailed out the rich bankers and investment houses (and a couple of bad business too). Central bank policies always benefit these guys first…

    It is also interesting than even in South Africa consumers (that can afford it) are still spending. This points to the real systematic risks in the system and other explanations.

    http://cafehayek.com/2010/10/a-keynesian-house.html

    I could mention all of the other explanation you wouldn’t hear from industry bankers/economist, revolving door politicians and Keynesian macro-economist, but it is all out there on the net if you just read a bit wider than the mainstream narrative (which is pretty limiting on the causes and remedies for the financial crisis).

    http://cafehayek.com/2010/09/does-spending-create-prosperity.html

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/sentletsediakanyo Sentletse Diakanyo

    @HD…you’re mudding the debate by brining government spending into the equation. However, there is evidence that government spending is helpful especially as demonstrated by our infrastructural developmen which helped SA weather the economic storm that battered most of the developed economies in 2008/09. Whether QE2 and Bailouts in the US were helpful, is another debate on its own.

    What is clear about the US, where consumer spending also accounts for 70% of economic activity, is that when consumers hold spending back, the economy falters and recovery becomes much more difficult.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/sentletsediakanyo Sentletse Diakanyo

    @Bryan Mukandi…prosperous societies are not built through charitable benevolence but through self-sufficiency and participation in the mainstream economy.

  • http://www.tesol.co.za Mark Kerruish

    @Sentletse

    Take a look at Systems Theory as it pertains to economics and “society”. You can start at Wikipedia. It certainly has a bearing on your article and in part supports and in part refutes your argument.

    I like to economics as a special “ecology”. Each individual element of an ecosystem is looking out for number one but if part of the ecosystem collapses, very often the entire ecosystem collapses too. In ‘normal’ ecology, this happens when one element in the ecosystem consumes enough to destabilise the whole thing. Result: starvation for all. Not very good for all those looking out for number one, is it?

  • Kweku Hanson

    Your article would have more credibility and dignity if it were not for the fact that whole sections were lifted from Wikipedia without attribution. Shame on you.

    However, I suppose that is just another demonstration of the the of “entitlement” that pervades society.

    Conspicuous consumption is not only morally wrong. It is also dangerous. Witness Marie Antoinette.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/bryanmukandi Bryan Mukandi

    Sentletse, you can’t respond to a serious argument with a slogan, especially one as meaningless as ‘prosperous societies are not built through charitable benevolence but through self-sufficiency and participation in the mainstream economy’. If you keep this up, you’ll be on your way to becoming a politician.

    But seriously, every society enacts some form of economic redistribution. It is essential for social cohesion. Models differ, but successful social democratic ones, such as in Scandinavian countries, are guilty of what you would call ‘charitable benevolence’.

    You can build prosperous societies in several ways. The most important thing to do though, is to decide what it means to be prosperous. Here again, it seems to me as if your idea of prosperity is that those with the means to do so be allowed to have sushi parties in peace. That’s not very ambitious, is it?

  • http://www.gro2.co.uk laurence

    nguni made the most sense and raised the biggest laugh, “all that research to defend bling” excellent line …thanks, nguni.

  • mallencolly

    Oh dear, where to start.
    What is a self appointed moralist? Would you prefer externally appointed or elected moralists? Or are you just throwing the words self appointed in an attempt to diminish the validity of their opinions? Like your saying that anyone who does not agree has no active grey matter?
    More, what is morality other than an attempt to reconcile the interests of the individual with those of society? Society, despite your (Bentham’s) assertions is not fictitious, it is a very real thing. Human’s, like many other animals, are social creatures. We live in communities, share social bonds and share many common goals like the pursuit of happiness and security. Further, we are all linked economically since, at the very least, there is a finite amount of resources. You know the elementary economic problem of scarcity? And the idea of equitable distribution of resources? Bentham recognized all of this which is why he made a distinction between utility for one person and utility for more than one person. In his felicific calculus he acknowledged that the pleasure of one person or group could be negated by the pain of another person or group. This is also implied by the Social Contract. We are obligated to temper our individual desires to some extent by the general will.

  • mallencolly

    [Cont]
    Going back to Bentham, it is unquestionably “the greatest happiness” to protect our environment (whether it is social or ecological – a dysfunctional society or complete degradation will cause much pain and not a lot of happiness). Also, from Bentham, we should take into consideration the likelihood of pleasure or pain from a particular action. Which leaves the question : What harm comes to individual members of society through conspicuous consumption? The answer can be found in a number of Criminological theories of crime like absolute deprivation, relative deprivation, anomie/strain theory. Empirical research supports the idea that is more crime where there is concentrated disadvantage. Strain theory says not everyone in society has the legitimate means to attain socially accepted goals (the sushi parties, the Breitling watch, the Ferrari, the Blue Label,etc) and some will choose illegitimate means. That is what is meant by “spitting in the face of the poor”. And that is where the harm comes in (likely increase in crime) thus making it a Moral issue as defined by Bentham’s Utilitarianism.
    This dissertation (which references other research, obviously) is a good place to start if you are genuinely interested in the link between criminality and poverty.
    http://www.cech.uc.edu/criminaljustice/files/2010/08/Pratt.pdf

  • mallencolly

    [Cont]
    Going on to the Economics, your entire argument is a fallacy. You attempt to weigh the positives of *conspicuous* consumption against the harm that you claim is not there. That money would probably be more beneficial spent elsewhere, normal consumption which you recognize as something which will attain the goal of helping the economy out of recession. I have yet to come across a better example of the broken window fallacy
    http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/08/broken-window-fallacy.asp

  • http://aol fergie

    @Sentletse, I must say that your article are very good because you have the ability to make people think. One question that I would like to ask you, in the US people buy goods that they will never use, is this good for the society? Oprah had a show on TV where many families had houses full of good that they never used and had maxi out their credit cards. These people were in a lot of debt and could not pay their mortgages on their home so is this good for society?

  • lynda

    Sentlese, the real problem is the elementary economics that you seem to appreciate. Yes consumer spending spimulates growth however consumption on Sushi and Cars results in inflationary pressures in the long run. This is because this spending is usually financed by credit which in turn results in the creation of money. An over supply of money in the economy results in inflation ( Zimbambwe is a good example). on the other hand, investing in income generating assets should be any individual’s goal. It does not anly create sustanable worlth for the individual but for the society as a whole.It is the consumption of such assets that stimulate sustainable economic growth.

    Pls enough with economic 101.

  • http://www.charlottesvilleseowebdesign.com/ SEO Charlottesville

    Nonsense. Warren Buffett’s article was pure political garbage. If he wants to give more money to the government no one is stopping him. Does he really think Obama can spend the money better than he can?

  • http://wipokuli.wordpress.com Andreas Schlüter

    It seems that moral aspects are practically only helpfull for the well being of a society if integrated into a legal frame. Thus the spendings for conspicious consumtion could only be directed into more socially helpful advantages of a society by tax laws which reduce personal profits and allow more spendings for a government into education, training, social services and infra structure. Polititians (in power) will not be messured by moral lamentation but by their readyness to act in favour of the common well being.
    The “Freedom Charta” is not “out of time”, it could rather be an inspiration for many societies.
    Andreas Schlüter
    Berlin

  • http://www.keynesian.net/2011/04/ Keynesian

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