It has always struck me as odd that capitalism’s usual defenders abandon it when commercialism seems to be on its best behavior. Every year, we religionists love to rail against Christmas materialism. What a terrible curse–people in the marketplace thinking of others’ interests and needs for once. All the efficiency of the market PLUS good will toward men–why are we complaining, again?
Yet we do. Without fail, twitter feeds and chapel lecterns ring with invectives against Christmas commercialism. The warning voice, though, never seems to strike with precision. The concern seems to be that a focus on stuff gives rise to an idolatrous dethroning of deity. This religious criticism appears to mimic the secular and progressive criticism that commerce somehow defiles us and strips us of virtues like compassion or solidarity.
I don’t buy either of these criticisms, largely for the same reasons: commerce brings people together, builds trust, and fosters goodwill. These benefits are in addition to the efficiencies that market advocates typically emphasize. And these three aspects of commercial exchange are in special abundance during Christmas.
Perhaps the materialism complaint stumbles at the outset by focusing on the largely mythical human calculator that predominates in economic theory–the man focused only on maximization of personal utility. That portraiture does not explain the fact that so much commerce occurs on behalf of someone else–a reality underscored and amplified during holiday shopping. Thus, Christmas supports Amartya Sen’s critique of the rational-man theory: “The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron.” He’s the one who gives you lotion samples and leftover hotel shampoo in your stocking. But most of us don’t do that. Instead, the market provides a forum for us to express and cultivate virtue. As Deirdre McCloskey says, “In other words, it’s not the case that market capitalism requires or generates loveless people. More like the contrary. Markets and even the much-maligned corporation encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blown socialist regime.” I think a simple test proves this point. If you walk about a shopping mall during the Christmas holiday (setting aside for a moment your inner misanthrope), how are people behaving? By and large, there is an overpowering sense of goodwill among people engaged in (shudder) holiday materialism. I’d say this is mostly true at any time of year, but we may as well notice this phenomenon when it stands at its apex.
Beyond just the goodwill generated by the act of commerce, the materialism critique seems to ignore the very purpose of the materialistic behavior being condemned. Shouldn’t we celebrate this key example of how commercialism can enhance friendship through gift-giving? If you’re a religious capitalist, what is there not to like here?
A friend pointed out recently that Christmas giving seems fruitless, since the value-for-value gift exchanges offset each other. He concluded we may as well just keep our money. From an efficiency standpoint, it does seem strange to engage in a transaction cost without any expectation that you’ll achieve a pareto-efficient state of affairs. Samuelsonian economics alone can’t really explain why people engage in this ritual. That’s probably because the ritual is not purely economic. It’s about connection, relationship, and opportunity to think beyond ourselves. In other words, at bottom, it really is not about materialism in the shallow, desiccated sense that these Christmas puritans rail against. Commerce can be about compassion and camaraderie–not just self-interested calculation (though there’s nothing wrong with that either).
I don’t think the Babe of Bethlehem would disagree. After all, Jesus, while no aristocrat, was not a severe ascetic by any means–somewhat of a contrast to his cousin, John the Baptist. Perhaps the most poignant example of his view toward extravagant gift-giving occurs when a woman anoints him with an extremely valuable ointment. His disciples complained of the waste, griping that the ointment should’ve been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus defended her: “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me.” In other words, a materialistic act can still be a virtuous one. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of them are. We need, after all, an earthly vehicle by which to exercise heavenly virtue. The market is well-suited for that role. God can be in a market–he’s that good.
Of course, a post about Christmas and materialism must make obligatory mention of Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens was no fan of capitalism, but his reformed villain ironically proves a point about Christmas materialism: it’s the lack of virtue in the individual operating in the market, not the market itself, that desiccates the soul. So perhaps I can end with a simple “Scrooge” test: is Scrooge the guy standing back and pointing the finger, or is Scrooge the person that the finger aims at–the mom who braves the crowded mall to plop her kids on Santa’s lap and wraps gifts until 3:00 AM in the morning?