Economists study the production and consumption of stuff. Stuff refers to physical things that consumers use and enjoy: food, clothing, books, face cream, electricity, computers and so forth. Industrial economies produce stuff in vast quantities and great variety. Pre-industrial economies produced much less.
Of course, economists don’t usually talk about “stuff”. Rather, they refer to “consumer goods”. But behind this choice of words lies a sort of ethical propaganda, as if it were self-evident that all sorts of stuff—from dishwashers to downloaded pornography—are in fact good. The assumption leads ineluctably to the conclusion that more stuff, more good, is always better than less.
Is it? The question can only be answered after addressing more a basic puzzle: what is stuff good for? Or, in more traditional philosophical language: how can stuff serve the good?
Most economists feel a bit queasy discussing anything like the one and transcendental good. They would prefer to leave such matters to eager 18-year-olds reading Dostoyevsky. According to the professionals, economics is a worldly, scientific study, and the economy’s aim is not the good or anything similarly magnificent, but something more modest: the maximization of utility or the optimization of welfare.
This modesty may be fine as far as it goes, but it hardly goes very far. It vastly underestimates the true value of consumption, as well as of the other economic activities—labour, production and distribution. The economy, like everything human, aims at more than mere utility or welfare. People want their lives, including their economic lives, to be meaningful, loving and beautiful. They want the societies they live in to be just and perhaps glorious. In other words, they strive for the transcendentally good.
So how can stuff be good in this transcendental sense? In the simplest terms, stuff is good when it serves some human good. For example, human life is good and a healthy life is good, so food and medicine—which keep people alive and flourishing—are good.
Stuff can do much good. Besides promoting life and health, it helps feed the mind and make life beautiful. It comforts and entertains. It allows travel and communication. The list is long—but finite. Stuff contributes little to the spiritual goods of love, justice and faith (for believers). Further, more stuff does not always make life better.
Consider food. When food staves off starvation or malnutrition, it is very good. When it delights the palate or allows a meal to be celebratory, it is good. When it leads to obesity, it is bad. In other words, there is a limit to the good of food. Not all human desires are limited in this way, at least not in this life. People can never get enough of spiritual goods. Stuff, however, is physical and its good is constrained by what people can take in. Individuals and entire societies can have enough of any particular type of stuff—satiety. Or more than enough—super-satiety.
People often do not respect these limits. They want more of some type of stuff than is good for them. That misplaced desire can be called the moral stuff-confusion: the false association of stuff on its own, especially of more and finer stuff, with the transcendental good. The confusion is widespread. I may think that acquiring more books will help me know the truth, but the shortness of life gets in the way. The ravages of age limit the good of even the finest face cream. Hopes that a bigger house or a newer car will make my life more meaningful are sure to be disappointed.
Here is some very good news. For consumers in rich countries, stuff does pretty much all the good it possibly can. The industrial reality is satiety, and often super-satiety. To understand this, you must ignore—for a moment—your desire for a better home entertainment system. Instead, think about the true good of stuff. In that context, our stuff-lives are indeed very nearly sated. We mostly live for about as many years as the human body can last, eat more than is healthy, can easily support more children than we care to bear, have more education than we want, drown in information, bask in comforts, travel where we want and have friends everywhere.
Of course, there are still gaps to be filled. But in the last century these have shrunk to near insignificance. The last substantial unmet physical desire—to make distance almost irrelevant for communication and the exchange of information—is well on the way to full satisfaction. Indeed, your lingering desire for a new entertainment system sounds like an example of the moral stuff-confusion. Will the new really be sufficiently better than the old to do much good?
Economists rarely discuss what the coming of satiety means, but it should have a profound effect on economic practice. When the newest gadget was a plough which allowed the hungry to be fed or clean water which kept infectious disease away, increased stuff consumption was a worthy personal goal and economic growth was a worthy national aim. That moral judgement still basically holds in poor countries. But when the newest gadget does nothing better than improve already good video displays, the pursuit of more and better stuff is of little value.
It may even be evil. The substantial effort dedicated to the increase of and innovation in the production of stuff might be expended better elsewhere. Also, super-satiety may encourage, as well as be encouraged by, the moral stuff-confusion. Excessive attention to stuff probably promotes greed and envy. Critics of the “consumer culture” make these points often enough, but economists generally ignore them. They are wrong to do so. Economists should be the most careful students of how stuff helps and harms consumers. In a super-sated economy, such a study would probably lead to the conclusion that less (stuff) is more (good).