So Augustine and Milton Friedman walk into a bar…

Cavanaugh begins the first chapter of  Being Consumed with the observation that while technically the market has become “free-er”, most people have an inherent feeling that it has truly become more bureaucratic. Instead of rejoicing in the endless opportunities afforded by a free market, most people are cynical about work. He cites the comic strip Dilbert as evidence. Cavanaugh attributes such cynicism to the fact that we can’t give a unified account of the telos of human life. What we’re left with today is the exercise of will against sheer will. It’s completely arbitrary. Cavanaugh then sets forth the goal of chapter one:

What is required is a substantive account of the end of earthly life and creation so that we may enter into particular judgments of what kinds of exchanges are free and what kinds are not.

Cavanaugh then defines the modern conception of a free market using Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman’s criteria for a free exchange are that the transaction is informed and voluntary and freedom is defined as pursuing “what you want without interference from others.” There are two corollaries Cavanaugh draws from Friedman’s assessment. First, in Friedman’s view, freedom is purely negative. Cavanaugh labels it “agnostic” when it comes to the “positive capacities of each person in a transaction.” The second idea is that “a free market has no telos.” Language about ordering desires becomes unintelligible in this purely free conception of the market. Cavanaugh is also critical of free market philosophers for not asking what makes a desire real and not merely artificial. Milton Friedman’s answer is that a real desire is one that people act on. It’s obvious that such a view practically eliminates the distinction between artificial and real wants.

Cavanaugh then brings Augustine into the argument to cast suspicion on Friedman’s definition of freedom. You could say this book is about Catholic social teaching vs. realpolitik, but I think the book comes down to ancient freedom against modern freedom. Being Consumed is a book about why we should prefer antique notions of freedom against the cultural presuppositions we have today. Since William indicated we should have a discussion about the practicality of Catholic social teaching and the like, I pause here to make a brief pass at the issue of feasibility. What Cavanaugh is trying to show is that Friedman’s philosophic conceptions underlying his market system are untenable. I think it’s possible to believe in a market economy, but you can’t elevate choice to this deific level. Of course, speaking of practicality, no one actually lives out Capitalism and Freedom. What Friedman represents is a sort of economic imperialism. All bodies of knowledge become subject to the discipline of economics.  The moral of the story is that economists make bad philosophers.

Cavanaugh recounts Augustine’s conception of freedom as not simply freedom from, but “freedom for.” Desires, accordingly, are not produced purely within the individual, but are rather complex social constructions. Cavanaugh notes that, for Augustine, “there are true desires and false desires and we need a telos to tell the difference between them.” To be left “free to choose” without an outside force (God) shaping your will was a tragedy, not a blessing. Cavanaugh proposes using Augustine’s conception of freedom and desire to evaluate a market transaction. Here is the result:

The point is this: the absence of external force is not sufficient to determine the freedom of any particular exchange. In order to judge whether or not an exchange is free, one must know whether or not the will is moved towards a good end.

I have to pause simply to note the overlap in common law between Augustine’s  view and the bad tendency test (I just finished a Constitutional Law class, that’s what being in College still does to you, the power of peculiar reference.) Anyways, let’s continue:

This requires some kind of substantive – not merely formal – account of the true end, or telos, of the human person. Where there is no objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to chose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. 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 bed, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.

A lovely little paragraph. I couldn’t help but think of some Christians who have turned the creation mandate into a consumption mandate with a little linguistic and theological gymnastics. Cavanaugh has a running metaphor through out the book of an “empty shrine.” We buy things to fill that empty shrine, Cavanaugh argues.

Cavanaugh then turns his attention to power and the market. Advertising, with its shift from product centered to buyer centered ads, creates an imbalance of power. Products are now linked to images and emotions they have little to do with. Cavanaugh also notes that advertising has invaded our lives. Everywhere we go, sometimes even unknowingly, we are advertised to. “To pretend, as Milton Friedman does, that the consumer simply stands apart from such pervasive control of information is to engage in fantasy,” he argues.

Cavanaugh’s ends the chapter by summarizing his position: “There is no point in making broad utilitarian claims about the benefits of ‘the free market’ as if we could identify a market as ‘free’ merely by the absence of restraint on naked power.”


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