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.



James K.A. Smith said...

Gents, I'm intrigued by the exchanged and honored by the attention to my argument. May I add just one qualification?

I think it's important to situate my critique of market "formation" within the philosophical anthropology that I articulate in the first part of the book (and which will be expanded in volume 2). That picture of the human person contests philosophies of action which see human action and behavior driven by conscious decisions and instead appreciates how the majority of action and behavior is driven by "automated," pre-conscious habits and desires. (This draws on Charles Taylor's critique of "intellectualism"--that is, pictures of the human persons that see us as fundamentally 'thinking things.')

In that light, it's not the market sends us "messages," nor even that we are moved to act on the basis of our "beliefs." Rather, market liturgies shape, prime, and aim those pre-conscious habits and desires, embedding in us a vision of the good life which functions as the unconscious telos of our action.

All of this needs expansion and properly scholarly detail, which is the task of volume 2, as well as some work I'm doing now in the philosophy of social science. So it's helpful for me to hear how folks are receiving this to know what I need to address in the "expanded" version.

Thanks for the prompt to think further about these matters!

Steven McMullen said...

Thanks Jamie for your clarification. I was somewhat worried that my overly brief summary of your argument was inadequate, and I think you have done a good job of fixing that here.

I think that John's critique still applies, since this looks to me like a theory of preference formation, whereas John is arguing that the "market liturgies" actually take a different form/or have a different effect. I could be wrong though, I should let John respond.

Jaakko said...
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Jaakko said...
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Jaakko said...

Thank you for a thoughful discussion!

I should probably not comment here since I haven't read the book, but from what I read in this blog I would comment the following.

You must have all read this:

Frey, Bruno and Meier, Stephan; Are Political Economists Selfish and Indoctrinated?; Economic Inquiry Vol. 41, No. 3, July 2003, 448-462

And/or other such articles. I think that the current research does not show that studying economics (market way of thinking) makes one any more selfish than studying almost any other subject in a secular university. Studying at the university (regardless of the subject) however does seem to make people more selfish and people who go to study economics are more selfish from the outset.

I think that where such literature informs is that we should not necessarily direct our attacks so much on markets or economics (though we should attack them as well, or criticize rather) but rather on secularism and humanism (prevalent in all secular universities) more generally.

So, I do think that what we see and hear certainly does affect our preferences. And the secularism of our schools and perhaps also of the advertisements and entertainment affect them adversely. And there is even growing number of empirical evidence pointing to this direction.

An interesting study for a Christian economist would be, in my opinion, to do a study like the one attached above in a Christian university and see whether the trends (giving/altruistic action becomes less over the university career) apply also in Christian universities.