Pamela J. Hobart

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Pamela J. Hobart studied philosophy and education at the doctoral level at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and she holds a B.A. magna cum laude in philosophy from Georgia State University. From 2012 to 2014, Pamela served as the K-12 Education Program Officer for the Institute of Humane Studies at George Mason University. Her research interests include libertarianism, virtue ethics, social norms, character education, homeschooling/unschooling, and the epistemology of reasonable disagreement, and she lives in New York City.

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Screen Capture from Peter Singer's "The Why and How of Effective Altruism" (via TED)

In the first part of this two-part series, we explored the views of Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and whether they count as “eugenics.” Although his possibly eugenicist views are what drew protestors to Singer’s recent talk at the University of Victoria, Singer wasn’t there to discuss bioethics. Instead, he had been invited by the Effective Altruism club, and the event included a screening of Singer’s 2013 TED talk on Effective Altruism.

"Peter Singer" by Mal Vickers is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Flickr)

Recently, students at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, gathered to protest a talk given by Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer. First and foremost, Singer is a utilitarian who believes that the rightness of actions depends on their maximizing pleasure for sentient creatures. He is well known for his provocative utilitarian views on infanticide, animal welfare, and charitable obligations.

The UVic protestors claimed that “giving Singer a platform was implicitly supporting the murder of disabled people, and that his views supported eugenics.” Their complaint is only the most recent in a long history of protests to the work of Singer. Though questions about academic freedom and freedom of speech more generally are relevant, let’s set them aside for a moment and consider the charge head-on: what is eugenics? Who counts as a eugenicist?

Screen Capture of the Implicit Association Test on Race.

In 1998, a team of researchers founded Project Implicit for the purpose of identifying, measuring, and correcting implicit (i.e. subconscious) biases in the general public. Project Implicit is organized around the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychometric evaluation used to probe the depth and nature of bias in individuals. By showing test takers various pairings of words and concepts (“white,” “black,” “pleasant,” “unpleasant”), the IAT can determine which associations takers make more readily. Consistent lags in pairing a category, like “black,” with positive concepts, like “pleasant,” indicate that the test-taker is biased against that category of people.

"Toilet" by dinky123uk is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Pixabay)

Recently in the United States, bathroom usage rights for transgender people have come to the political fore. As a part of Title IX protections against gender discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, the Obama administration has recently ordered public schools to allow students to use whichever bathrooms they please. This should free transgender students from the unpleasantness of using what they perceive to be the wrong bathroom, or being asked to use single-user facilities (unlike and apart from their classmates).

This development is the culmination of a debate that first brewed on various college campuses across the country and later issued in various state-level “bathroom bills” that would require people to use the bathrooms that correspond with their birth certificate gender. But now that even President Obama himself is involved, this issue is unlikely to dissipate quietly and without additional relevant legislative and/or judicial action.

It’s not too difficult to see why bathrooms have historically been a focal point during times of social change. Before bathrooms became a pressure point in figuring out how transgender people should be included and accommodated publicly, they served as a literal and metaphorical site of racial tensions during the Civil Rights movement and of sexist tensions as women increasingly worked and ventured outside the home.

Hypothetically in a robustly free country, businesses and organizations would be left alone to determine their own bathroom policies, while customers would be free to visit whichever locations they like. This means in theory that businesses could choose to offer bathrooms segregated along any conceivable dimension. However, establishments with odious bathroom (and other) policies would likely fail fast.

The only places likely to thrive with such practices in place would be, for instance, small ideological clubs/foundations and houses of worship. And the existence of self-contained islands of social dissent do not threaten the liberal order. On the contrary, the protection of peaceful freedom of association is an essential feature of liberalism.

But starting from the quite non-libertarian status quo, things are much more complicated. The provision of bathrooms is already heavily regulated. For instance, overlapping and even conflicting bathroom regulations in New York City mean it’s often unclear whether a restaurant or coffee shop is in compliance with bathroom code, which depends on the number of seats, age of the building and business, and other factors.

The already-regulated status quo means that when the government declines to further regulate bathrooms, that refusal bears greater symbolic value than if public bathrooms remained a generally extra-legal issue (as in the ideal libertarian state of affairs). If it was appropriate to legally protect bathroom access for people of color and later people with disabilities, refusing to do so for transgender people suggests by implication that their status is somehow less important.

That being said, state-level bathroom laws will probably have fairly little effect in practice. It would be incredibly burdensome to actively check that bathroom visitors at any given venue were choosing the right door, regardless of whether they were supposed to use the facility corresponding to their birth gender, current legal gender, apparent gender, or personally professed gender.

Of course, acts of voyeurism and sexual assault are already criminal, so police are already empowered to prevent and investigate them whether or not they are also empowered to act as gender enforcers. Perhaps a few would-be bathroom criminals would be deterred by the prospect of getting hit with an extra charge for simply having used the wrong bathroom, but criminal penalties for sex crimes should be enough already.

Finally, we should remember that it is ok to personally disagree with the law. Even more importantly, a liberal society requires us merely to tolerate peaceful others, not to eagerly approve of everything about them in our hearts. Social conservatives have been losing the culture wars for some time and are not incorrect to feel like their ethical ideals are waning. It will take time and experience to show those uneasy with changes in bathrooms that those changes are really a non-issue. Top-down action, like that of the Obama administration, can change policies but it doesn’t necessarily win hearts and minds, and may even provoke political backlash.

"Just married couples leaving Seattle City Hall..." by Dennis Bratland is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The dust is just now beginning to settle on same-sex marriage in the United States, since the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges established the unconstitutionality of state-level bans on such marriages. Though the law of the land has been established, all the legal and sociocultural effects remain to be seen (for example, can elected officials receive a religious exemption from performing certain job-related duties).

Is same-sex marriage a victory for freedom? It’s hard to say, and depends on who you ask. The ability to marry a partner of the same sex at the same time both expands the life possibilities for many citizens, while also bringing them into the fold of semi-coercive social norms regarding what a proper long-term romantic relationship and family look like. The Supreme Court let “love win,” but that love is now an increasingly institutionalized one.

To those who we could call “rule of law” libertarians, the most important consideration is fairness and impartiality under the law. This perspective comes down in favor of same-sex marriage for obvious reasons having to do with fairness and equal protection. End-the-state libertarians, on the other hand, strongly disapprove of government in marriage to begin with (on the grounds that it invites and normalizes the meddling of government in private affairs), and object to its expansion (even to same-sex couples) as more of a bad thing. Some in the LGBTQ community (who may or may not be libertarians or anarchists) share this concern, believing that marriage is a kind of well-meaning but ultimately pernicious encouragement towards the conventional domesticated lives they don’t actually want.

No principled libertarian objects to gay marriage for specifically moral reasons, having to do with “marriage” being reserved for the permanent bond between a man and a woman, for instance. Whether it is un-libertarian to have reservations about progressive views regarding the malleability of sexuality and family is a trickier question (certainly progressive, libertine, and conservative libertarians have basically always co-existed in libertarianism’s big tent).

Libertarians do reasonably worry that same-sex marriage will lead to the abridgment of other liberties, namely freedom of religion and freedoms of association, especially through commerce (see, for example, the fight over whether religious bakers must bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple). However it is certainly nothing new in principle that some values in a plural society would necessarily become pitted against others. And it does not seem to be the goal of same-sex marriage proponents to use that position strategically for the purpose of dismantling other liberties, though the possibility is real and conspiracy theories abound.

Could there be other libertarianism-consistent reasons to oppose same-sex marriage? Not really. Allowing only straight marriage in order to “strengthen the nuclear family” runs afoul of the libertarian goal of making minimalist policy that is as value-neutral as possible. Even if same-sex marriage and parenting somehow did in fact weaken family life overall (it’s complicated, and family stability may matter more than gender), that would be a less important consideration for even most socially conservative libertarians than establishing state neutrality in marriage. In any case, there are relatively hands-off ways for the government to fight childhood poverty and provide opportunity to families, like properly-structured earned income tax credits and basic food support, that do not necessarily require discriminating on the basis of the biological or adoptive parents’ sexuality.

Similarly, slippery slope arguments against same-sex marriage don’t seem to be consistent with libertarianism. The threat of a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to multiple partner marriage (polygamy) is real. However, that move only seems like a pernicious slippery slope if one assumes that legally-sanctioned marriages must be between one man and one woman in the first place. Rule-of-law libertarians would likely reject that assumption.

In the end, it is not really up for debate – from a libertarian perspective – whether people of the same gender should be allowed to marry conditional on the fact that government is in the marriage business in the first place. Since marriage, in the civil-legal light, is about distributing the benefits and burdens of a particular form of citizenship, that form of citizenship should be in some strong sense available to all.

It’s a separate issue as to whether the government should require private businesses that cater to heterosexual weddings also to cater to same-sex weddings. The primary values at stake here are economic freedom versus non-discrimination, but the situation is much more narrow than the marriage question in general (which necessarily has broad and far-reaching consequences over many citizens’ whole lives). Whether a libertarian, or anyone, should trade some economic freedom in the attempted pursuit of non-discrimination is, however, a topic for another time.

Effect of the Drought on Uvas Resevoir by Don DeBold (via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

If you move to California these days, as I did a few months ago, the jokes about bringing your own water along will be abundant. Of course, access to clean water is no laughing matter – water is one of the only specific things, along with oxygen, that literally every human requires for life.  Like most public policy issues, the California water situation is much more complex than you might have first heard; it’s hard even to figure out who exactly is at fault.

No, we’re not experiencing a drought just because people have munched too many water-loving almonds, or even because of climate change – California has often experienced drought cycles historically. Water rights in the west are divided up in some legacy finders-keepers manner, based on the order in which settlers of different areas claimed them. More recent attempts to clarify who got which water failed due to inaccurate measurements of a cyclical supply, and because they didn’t take ordinary natural fluctuations in supply into account. Most importantly, California is a net importer of water, a situation which only heightens as it grows more food and houses more people.

Unfortunately, water management has ultimately been more hampered by the unfree market for water in California than improved by government’s interferences so far. Although citizens of California have been bribed and strong-armed into reducing water consumption, this is more symbolic than anything because agricultural purposes account for much more of the state’s water usage. And it’s not the dietary decadence of Californians that creates the problem either (although we really do eat avocado on everything) – California largely feeds the country, and makes up for states that house people but which aren’t suitable for producing many foods.

The most reasonable way forward is to increase the extent to which water is market priced (gradually, if necessary). Market prices for water encourage responsible consumption, force inevitable trade-offs between water-requiring activities, and properly stimulate the good stewardship of existing water and production of new usable water sources by those relevantly positioned. Market prices for water also trickle down (pun intended) through other industries, resulting in more accurately priced goods, like meat, and services, like lawn care.

When water is underpriced and everyone can effectively use as much as she likes, no one is forced to exercise any restraint – until the well starts running dry. In any case, there is no returning to some pre-political state from which we can re-divide up the water in a fair manner, once and for all. Every process for doing so (from dictatorial fiat to popular vote) would introduce deep new moral questions without ready answers.

Forward-looking considerations matter deeply, too: helping citizens today at the expense of harming citizens tomorrow is no morally-neutral choice. Political processes are also bad at managing water in a forward-looking manner, because politicians need votes today, so tough choices get deferred for literally as long as possible. But perhaps the situation is now dire enough to force some real action, like significant local and regional moves towards market-priced water. Many California homes and businesses don’t even have water meters, but those will be required by 2025, allowing for the tracking and pricing of specific entities’ usage.

Some harms associated with a switch to market pricing for water can be defrayed by government action at the margins. For those truly in need, water stamps could fulfill a similar purpose as food stamps, or an annual tax credit could be offered to individuals and families based on the baseline water usage a household of their size would be expected to purchase. One California city that began market pricing its water helps residents to smooth their bills month-to-month and conducts audits to help homeowners look for inefficiencies.

Less effective government programs, like tax credits for high-efficiency appliances, could be phased out, because when water’s market priced the incentive to use less for daily chores is built right into the appliance purchase. Authorities would only need to patrol for actual market-priced water theft (like connecting your hose to your neighbor’s pipes) which is a much smaller job as compared to preventing unauthorized usage and waste of water (like people watering lawns in the middle of the night during attempted bans). When water is the right price, water-intensive industries try hard to reduce their needs so demand doesn’t plummet for their products –indeed, market-priced water could even hasten the development of lab-grown (less water-intensive) meat.

No one wants to pay for something that used to feel free, or that was artificially cheap. But charging for water is the only way to distribute the existing supplies in anything close to a rational manner, and for ensuring that innovations in water sourcing can take place before it’s too late. Strangely enough, market pricing means the desires of distasteful Californians wishing to heavily water large lawns in the middle of the drought can be channeled for good instead of for evil. When they’re not wasting water, but buying it, big water users (and water bottling operations) can subsidize the research and development that will bring more sustainable water to their communities in the future.

ED Goes Back to School 4 by US Department of Education (CC BY-2.0)

Previously, Prindle director Andrew Cullison argued that libertarians should favor public education because well-educated citizens would be more likely to endorse and support a generally free political structure. In response, I pointed out that school doesn’t do a great job of teaching the relevant subjects, and that most of the gains to becoming educated (especially attending college) are individual gains, not public goods. To top it all off, voters are generally uninformed (and have incentives to remain uninformed), and government actors are very good at benefitting themselves rather than their constituents, despite the best intentions of ordinary citizens. Are there any reasons for a libertarian to support education, specifically publicly-funded (i.e. tax-funded) education?

Libertarians are essentially individualists. They generally believe that the individual, and not the country, community, or “society,” is the foundational unit of political (and moral) analysis. For this reason, I previously expressed doubts that libertarians would be friendly to the idea that publicly-funded education is a good way to promote libertarianism. That comes close to seeing voters as a kind of clay to be molded through political processes into a citizens who do what you want them to do (i.e., be libertarian). It may result in the right end state, according to a libertarian, but I’m uneasy with the method. (Ideally, issues that are a matter of fundamental rights would not be subject to popular vote in the first place, anyways).

But this individualism can be understood as logically prior to the libertarianism itself, at least in many or most cases. That is, people hold libertarian political positions because they are sympathetic to the individualist worldview. The individualism, then, explains the libertarianism. And individualism can also generate a kind of defense of publicly-funded (even compulsory, tax-funded) education.

As individualists, we should be concerned at all times with how policies that target groups actually affect individuals, benefitting some at the cost of others. And we should be interested in designing institutions that foster individual virtues like self-reliance, responsibility, and autonomy (or allowing these institutions to emerge).

Inconveniently, though, individuals don’t enter the world ready for full autonomy (and responsibility). Instead, they enter as babies and then kids who require significant growth and development to be ready for the primetime of adult life. Families do a pretty good job of raising their young, certain tragic examples notwithstanding, and it would be of greater harm than benefit to attempt to re-organize this basic feature of human societies (even apart from the rights violations involved).

We, as a society, can’t fully compensate for the differences between people and the ways in which their parents raise them differently within the bounds of moral permissibility (and even if this were possible, it’s not clear that it’s morally required or desirable). But we can provide some kind of a basic education to all as an acknowledgment of the capacities each person has – and of the responsibilities a free society will expect her to bear as an adult.

Deciding how much and what kind of education fulfills this individualist purpose won’t be easy, and certainly depends on the context (how prosperous a society is, what the job market is like, etc). But respecting and protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals is the best reason for governments to get involved in education (if there is a compelling one in the end at all). Education markets don’t experience “market failure” in the traditional sense, and it’s unjust to educate students with an eye towards turning them into particular kinds of voters. But the kind of individualism that animates libertarian political positions can also motivate a principled desire to see each citizen receive the education she needs to operate within the kind of society maintained around her.

Second Grade Writing Class, WoodleyWonderWorks (Flickr) (CC-BY-2.0)

If liberty is so fundamentally important to libertarians, then they should readily support means of achieving and maintaining it. Taking it as a given that libertarians care about liberty as a primary sociopolitical value and aren’t going to change their minds about that, should they include public education amongst these means?

Dr. Cullison has argued that (1) an educated populace constitutes a public good of the kind libertarians already think governments may permissibly encourage through taxation and spending; and (2) that an educated populace actually would (or could, given the right education) defend liberty in the way that libertarians would like. The first claim is an appeal to logical consistency, and the second is an empirical claim.

To the first point: just because a libertarian (or a “minarchist” – supporter of the small state) acknowledges the collective action problems involved in providing public goods doesn’t mean that every potential public good then ought to be provided by the government. There are always complicated tradeoffs involved with policy decisions. Perhaps when we look at public education, we find that a large majority of the benefits (broadly construed) accrue to individuals, with positive spillover effects socially (in terms of GDP or something). There would then be no inconsistency problem to decide that treating education as a public good didn’t make sense, all things considered.

But, more importantly, it’s unclear that increasing amounts of education would serve the libertarian goal, as a matter of fact. The types of courses that would instill a respect for freedom in students – history, economics, political science – are conspicuously absent from most curricula, even at the college level, and taught superficially to poorly when offered. The political-bureaucratic apparatus around middle and high school education ensures that this mediocre status quo remains enshrined in perpetuity.

And funding higher education is relevantly different than funding basic K-12 education, as a public goods matter. Many of the most educated people in this country argue for free college for all, and undoubtedly dealing with one’s student loans can be incredibly stressful. But the returns of a college degree reliably exceed its costs, and they are paid out to the degree-holder in terms of increased wages. A large part of why college is so expensive is because campus life has been getting nicer, and people take plenty of fluffy but fun electives, so college is also a consumption good for its consumer (the student).

Why should taxpayers fund a long and only semi-educational vacation for students who will themselves reap most (if not all) of the financial gains later? With this hefty carrot already inherently on the table, society is unlikely to systemically under-invest in college in a way that would justify wide-scale government intervention (which can itself readily lead to over- or at least mal-investment).

Public goods considerations are supposed to keep us from overshooting on paring down the state so far that we risk lapsing back into dysfunctional society of another kind. But it’s not clear that capping public spending on education (or redistributing it more equitably, such as from rich school districts to poor) approaches that line.

As a moderate libertarian, I do find the more compelling argument for public education is indeed the individualist one. People ought not to be educated at public expense for the reason that they can (hopefully) become little cogs in the liberty-supporting political machine. On the contrary, education with a political purpose in mind can go so far as turning into manufactured consent – a state producing the consent it needs for legitimacy by its own processes (like public education).The observations that political stances are largely heritable and that voters are irrational cast further doubt on any plans to promote liberty through the education and subsequent political participation of individuals.

It might just be the other way around: broad liberties are themselves a foundational public good that generate surplus social value, more so than education per se, and should be protected by constitution and judiciary whenever possible. Widely-available education is a complicated investment, consumption, and signaling activity, and it’s the output of a free society even more than an input to it. In the next post, I will develop this argument in more detail.

New Year Resolutions List via Wikimedia Commons

We’re now over a month into the new year – how are those resolutions coming? Even if you didn’t happen to make any for yourself, the cultural phenomenon of the new year’s resolution sheds interesting light on the persistent gap between what kinds of lives individuals think would be best for themselves and what kind of lives they’re currently leading. A survey of top resolutions, conducted by psychologists at the University of Scranton, reveals that they’re pretty much exactly what you’d predict, including losing weight, spending less, staying fit, and quitting smoking.

That study also revealed that, in general, people’s new year’s resolutions fail. Probably attempts to change oneself at other times of the year are likely to fail as well. While the psychology of change is really a topic unto itself, today the question at hand is whether the government ever has a proper role to play in promoting better behavior of the kinds people obviously hope to. To some extent, this is already happening – think government-funded smoking cessation programs, tax breaks for certain kinds of savings, and soda taxes.

“Libertarian paternalism,” a term coined by academics Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, is a research program founded on the idea that government can and should help to align individuals’ behavior with those individuals’ own self-interest by encouraging – not forcing – those choices at a policy level. “Soft paternalism” involves choice-manipulating components, but not the difficult-to-bypass tools of “hard paternalism,” like steep fines or criminal punishments. (For the record, despite its name, I actually don’t know many other libertarians who endorse libertarian paternalism, for reasons discussed towards the end of this piece).

Now-quintessential examples of libertarian paternalist policies include requiring store owners to keep the junk food away from the register where people are prone to impulse-purchase it, or having employers set up benefits enrollment forms so that workers must opt out of, rather than opt into, a hefty recurring retirement contribution.

The philosophical component of the libertarian paternalists’ claim is that a government legislating in this way is just, because helping someone to do what he actually wants to do does not thereby violate his rights. The empirical component of the claim is that “libertarian paternalist”-type policies, policies that “nudge” behavior, actually work.

Naturally, libertarian paternalism faces any number of philosophical and practical challenges. There are those who consider any government interference, however minimal, into people’s lives a miscarriage of justice – but hey, we were promised libertarian, not anarchic, paternalism, so that’s a debate for another level of abstraction.

Libertarian paternalist policies may crowd out some opportunities for mistake, self-reflection, and character development, but apparently not enough for this to be a clear reason to reject them. People are still free to consume the wrong foods and face the health consequences, albeit at slightly higher prices. And would it really be regrettable if “nudge”-type opt-out savings policies kept some individuals from suffering a lack of sufficient retirement funds? The “character development” opportunity provided by eating cat food in an unheated apartment in one’s old age is of questionable importance, considered in the totality of the circumstances.

The most serious philosophical challenge to libertarian paternalism asks us to notice that it’s prohibitively difficult (to literally impossible) to understand anyone’s motives for action, other than our own. Because legislators cannot account for this in their development of libertarian paternalist policies, they will inadvertently harm people for whom the nudge makes little sense – a person with low blood sugar who needs a very large soda to boost her blood sugar immediately, or a person who opts out of a savings plan and incurs additional taxes at the margin because he plans to expatriate to a lower-cost country in a few decades.

We must admit that a libertarian paternalist policy in some sense would make these particular individuals worse off than they might otherwise have been – but the harms of obesity and poverty also flow from its absence. But it invites us to inaccurately think of ourselves as ultra-special snowflakes when we argue that no one, least of all a legislator, could ever begin to grasp our best interests, even in principle. But the tenets of positive psychology suggest otherwise, that people are much more alike in their desires and conditions of well-being than they are different. If a particular proposed soft paternalist policy fails, then, it’s due to the specifics of how it would help some people at the expense of others, not because there’s any unique epistemological burden here as compared to ordinary policy considerations.

To be fair, even if libertarian paternalism is justified in theory, its policies might also work less well in the field than we’d hoped, for instance based on empirical results following compulsory menu board nutrition facts labeling in some places. And certainly the pop science media has done its typically poor job in explaining the nuances of unconscious behavior, making it sound like the automatic choice is always the right one. So we should temper our expectations for the power of the nudge – which actually is cause for philosophical critics to rejoice!

It will not be possible for the blunt tools of government to turn every citizen into the best possible version of herself, but it’s well within the scope of a moderately liberal (or moderately conservative) government to take steps in this direction, especially when setting some default option is unavoidable anyways. Libertarian paternalism does not provide a complete vision of the relationship between the citizen and the state – it doesn’t say much about the times when private and public interests genuinely conflict. And libertarian paternalism falls victim to all the difficulties of implementation that any government program does (for instance, the pitfalls explained by public choice economics).

But libertarian paternalism, as such, raises no new issues of legislation – as always, we face hard questions about how we may or may not trade off the welfare of one citizen against another. The assumption that the state exists to promote individual welfare is a double-edged sword, providing on the one hand a strong presumption of welfare-conducive individual liberty and, on the other, a reason to nudge people towards better lives without violating their rights, when possible. To assume that these rights preclude nudging just begs the question.

Black Friday @ 5th Avenue by Frank Tasche (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Shopping hangovers are just as real of a threat at this time of year as the drinking ones. With Black Friday and Cyber Monday just behind us (but Christmas still ahead), it can seem once again like everyone’s busy typing denouncements of consumerism with one hand while grabbing sweet deals and swiping plastic with the other. Amidst the holidays, we are sure to continue to hear complaints that the season has been ruined by a focus on material possessions and rampant “consumerism.”

Few would deny that the western world does exist today in a state of “consumer culture.” By many accounts, capitalism is its cause. Though “consumerism” also refers to political efforts to support consumers’ interests, the term has come to bear a rather pejorative connotation referring to the prominence of consumptive activities in everyday life, especially insofar as consumptive activities seem to be escalating for individuals and societies at an unsustainable rate.

Criticisms of consumerism take several forms, of varying plausibility. Sometimes, critics suggest that people harm themselves in placing too much importance on material possessions. Other critics worry that consumerism destroys the potential for genuine individuality, as through the spread of homogenous mass market products. Au contraire, perhaps consumerism instead fosters individuality, but of a pernicious and illusory sort. Or perhaps the means – and not the ends – of consumerism are morally problematic, insofar as this social state has been brought about through psychological manipulation by advertisers.

Defenders of a basically capitalist order must bite several bullets in the interest of intellectual honesty. It’s true that not all purchases make consumers meaningfully better off. Indeed, the challenge of facing too many choices is a well-known psychological phenomenon. Sometimes people find their behaviors unduly shaped by external sources, and marketing can be amongst them. Expressing individuality (as through consumption) is of dubious moral value when doing so seems to make people isolated and self-absorbed instead of happier.

But what is the alternative? If adults don’t or shouldn’t derive their identities from autonomous personal activities – many of which are consumptive – from where exactly are they supposed to derive them? Liberal progressives (including those of an anti-capitalist bent) also worry about citizens’ identities being shaped too heavily by their arbitrary family circumstances, their race or ethnicity, their religions, and their work lives. But figuring out who we are is an essential feature of the “human condition,” and alleviating one kind of external pressure just makes room for the others to flood in.

Buying things really does often help us to form our mature selves: the way you dress, the way you decorate your home, and the range of your hobbies express a nascent identity, allow you to take it for a test drive, and provide pathways for changing it in a kind of ongoing identity feedback loop. And buying experiences (instead of stuff) shapes humans lives even better yet: restaurant expenditures aren’t just food, they fuel social gatherings. Vacations aren’t just plane tickets, they’re memories to anticipate and then treasure.

And, through a supply-and-demand lens, notice that you can only have it one way or another: when the prices for things go down, people want more of them. It’s implausible to imagine any world in which consumer goods become cheaper (and therefore more widely and equitably available) but ordinary humans don’t buy more at the margin. It signals one’s higher social status to look down on those people waiting in an hours-long Walmart line for cheap televisions and computers, but there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with taking advantage of deals to get things for your family that would otherwise be financially out of reach.

Capitalism may be the cause of consumer culture, but consumerism is only partially a problem – and, to that extent, capitalism can also provide the solution. When people are generally rich in historical terms, we can afford (figuratively and literally) to spend time criticizing the ways in which they spend their money. Self-help and self-improvement have captured philosophical interest since ancient times, but the circumstances within which we conduct these activities are historically contingent. Navigating the prosperity of a post-industrial world requires consumer habits that can be learned and practiced as part of a balanced life. Though happiness will never be handed to us on a silver platter (or in a shopping bag), we should be glad to find ourselves operating so close to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.