Books Consumption Economics Theology

Being Consumed: Freedom and Unfreedom

The first chapter in William Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed takes the concept of freedom espoused by free market capitalism, particularly as expressed by Milton Friedman, the patron saint of the free market. Friedman argues that “in the absence of external coercion, two parties will enter into exchanges because it will be mutually beneficial for them to do so, ‘provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed’ “(p. 2). Cavanaugh points out this is only a negative definition of freedom, the absence of coercion.

This definition of freedom provides no telos, or purpose or common good, toward which life should move. Friedman is not interested in where people’s wants or desires come from, only that they are fulfilled through exchanges that are voluntary and informed. Cavanaugh then contrasts this with Augustine’s concept of freedom as “freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals” (p. 7-8). I won’t get into some of the more abstract distinctions he draws concerning these definitions of freedom.

Cavanaugh points out that Friedman’s definition breaks down because it does not consider inequality in power between individuals. Thus making transactions is often less than voluntary and informed, even though they appear to be on the surface. The purpose of marketing is not to inform consumers, but to entice them to consume. Notice most commercials are not very informative, instead spending their energy connecting their product to meaning, lifestyle, or image. Especially when aimed at children, this is certainly a form of coercion. The author sums it up best on p. 13:

When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.

The phrase “sacred canopy” comes from anthropology and is one way to define worldview. I have argued that consumerism is the worldview that globalization exports around the world and that it is the single greatest threat to the gospel in the world today (see my paper The Gospel of Globalization where I draw significantly from Michael Budde The (Magic) Kingdom of God, a book Cavanaugh quotes often).

Beautifully connecting to the purpose of this blog (I’m sure he had me in mind), Cavanaugh uses the example of buying meat from the supermarket. The consumer has all the information necessary according to Friedman. Yet the more you learn about CAFOs, industrial ag, antibiotic resistance, etc. the more you realize that consumer is neither entirely informed nor voluntary. So… the idolatry of the free market is part of what perpetuates a destructive food system.

1 comment on “Being Consumed: Freedom and Unfreedom

  1. Steve Fortenberry


    Excellent piece; I have ordered the book. In a recent conversation, someone told me that R. C. Sproul has the same view of this matter as Friedman–a rather hands off–“as long as there’s no coercion” approach. We need more Christian voices able to articulate the inadequacy of Friedman’s and Sproul’s views.


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