Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Dialogue on James K.A. Smith’s Account of Markets and Christian Desire

After reading James K.A. Smith's latest book: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation
I made some favorable comments about Jamie's argument that market participation may shape a set of desires which are contrary to, and in competition with, the desire for God. As is often the case, John was able to help me think through some of the issues, in the ensuing exchange (posted here with permission).

First, a summary of Smiths argument: modern consumer capitalism, by providing a set of practices, routines (or even liturgies) and images of an ideal life, is able to shape people's ultimate desires in harmful ways. People devote a large part of their life engaged in market activity at work and at the mall, and thus spend hours practicing consumption and profit maximization. Moreover, the most powerful media messages are ones focused creating the desire for a set of consumption goods that are necessary to achieve a certain lifestyle. In the end, this lifestyle, with all of the profiting and consuming that goes with it, becomes the ultimate vision of the good life that people adopt.

Now, John's comment:

My view on this radical orthodox approach to markets, values, and Christianity is that they have a mistaken understanding of how people operate in markets. They believe that people learn to maximize utility or profits or standard of living or something similar in the economy, and then bring that home. My view is that people have a set of beliefs that is their functional religion, and they operate out of that in all areas of their life. In my view, most businesses do not maximize profits. Many of them these days have a mission statement in which they describe a whole set of values that they try to fulfill. Same with individuals. We have plenty of evidence from behavioral economics that people are not "rational" in their economic behavior. You can find me advocating this position as early as "Stories Economists Tell" in 1988. It is also in my review essay on the Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny book that appeared in Faith and Economics: . (It starts around p. 67.)

My response:

I had read essay you linked to here about a year ago, but I had not connected those arguments to Jamie's work. I think that your response to this line of argument provides a nice dose of reality to a theory that over-simplifies the human condition. In my reading of Jamie's book, I kept thinking "this does not sound quite right" but could not put my finger on it. For that I thank you.

I do think that his argument might have merit in the following way: I do buy that the market system, and specifically the wealth of consumption options available to us today, makes a certain form of consumption-based idolatry especially easy to adopt. This, I think, is Jamie's main argument when he states that the market (or the mall) is the primary competitor with the church today for people's hearts. Part of what makes this type of idolatry easy to adopt is that consumption and shopping are increasingly a form of entertainment, but also because modern marketing really is pretty good at shaping people's desires.

One open question in my mind is whether all of this amounts to a re-shaping of people's "ultimate desires" or if we are simply moving around people's preferences for one set of goods/services over another. Jamie claims the former, if the latter is true, then modern consumer capitalism is much less pernicious.

John's response:

I used to be a follower of Galbraith on the issue of the effects of advertising, thinking that it really did shape preferences. Now I'm more inclined to think that the bulk of our purchases follow from a few very basic "lifestyle" decisions, and that advertising mainly influences teenagers who have a lot of discretionary income and are unduly sensitive to what is "cool." There's so much advertising now, especially on TV, that I don't even understand. It's not aimed at folks my age.