The idea that we cannot have good things without taxpayer subsidy and political-bureaucratic management is implausible on the face of it. But long habits of doing and thinking one way can prevent seeing the advantages of doing and thinking in another.

A number of basic government policies have distorted civilization away from the paths that it would “spontaneously” have taken.

  • Medicare hornswaggled people into investing more wealth on the last years of their lives than they would have rationally chosen;
  • “Public education” forced people into devoting more wealth (and less attention) to the education of their (and their neighbors’) children than may likely have chosen sans government schools;
  • State roadwork systems funnelled wealth to the creation and maintenance of roads that, had folks been made to bear those costs more directly and consciously, they would have been unlikely to have opted for.

In each of these these cases people’s incentives were changed by policy and program. Their behavior changed, and civilization was channelled from some paths to others.

We commonly assume that this redirection of effort was all to the good, made us better people, and that government proved its ability to solve “public goods” problems — market failures — efficiently.

This strikes me as not very convincing.

Just consider, first, the opportunities forgone. Some opportunity costs of these three popular and quite bedrock policies include startling innovations that we are, socially and politically, now trying to resuscitate:

  • By channelling wealth into old-age medical care, the wealth taken could not be spent on other valued uses, including health maintenance, illness prevention, and private savings and insurance.
  • By channelling wealth into schools for children, the opportunities forgone include non-schooling means of education from apprenticeship programs to home learning systems and ma-and-pop tutoring programs — all at a fraction of the cost of governmental, union-approved kludge.
  • By setting up a system of roadways, alternate means of travel were quite obviously scuttled, from railway and waterway transit to personal methods not requiring heavy investments in infrastructure, like personal air travel.

But it is worse that the few examples listed above, which barely scratch the surface. Government external economies and market failures abound in the three examples I have chosen — despite (or because of) ostensible state efforts to solve problems of market failure.

  • By reducing personal costs of imprudence, subsidized medical care subtlely encourages folly, especially medical folly — and we have several generations of corpulent diabetics to prove it.
  • By reducing the personal costs of raising their children, parents are tempted to devote less wisdom and care towards their children, even towards education generally — and we have generations of near illiterates who know almost nothing of history . . . and think of “socialism” as savvy policy.
  • By reducing some of our direct costs on driving, and enticing us onto a vast network of roadways which we naturally treat as a new commons, cities sprawled, wildlife habitats were undermined in the hinterlands, and the amount of pollutants people individually put into the atmosphere increased by many orders of magnitude.

All three of these policies, by the way, encouraged us to think of consumption as separate from production. And that is my definition of “consumerism.” In a free market, we largely consume according to the amount of our production. This, because trade is two-way. But when government gets involved, we increasingly think we have rights to wealth and resources that require little or no effort on our part to achieve. We become recipients foremost, not cooperators.

All of taxpaying society becomes a commons, and we are encouraged by government involvement to extract as many resources out of the system as we can, and place into it as little as we can.

Of the three government-run systems I have mentioned — Medicare, public schooling, and roadworks — it is the road system that is most tightly constructed to avoid the tragedy of the commons, for roadways have been largely (though, alas, not solely) funded by fuel taxes and vehicle licensing. But with the rise of electric cars, fuel tax system is already breaking down.

The opposite of consumerism is producerism, of course, and in traditional Puritanism and in protectionism we can see elements of that philosophy.

But both philosophies are out of balance. They are, in truth, examples of government splitting the whole person into two, according to functions. An individualist would encourage each person to think of himself or herself as both producer and consumer. Consumerism works against that, and corrupts our culture because of it.

Other isms jump on board, too.

Feminism, for example, has pried the natural division of labor by household apart, working mightily to transform that division by running it through the institutions of the administrative/redistributive state. In so doing, the feminine consumer function — of mothers managing resources for their families — has been taken as a consumerist standard of “social justice” while the masculine producer function has been targeted as the source of wealth to be resistributed by the “benevolent” mommy state.

Individualism strikes me as very different from these other distributional paradigms. But by seeing all adult individuals as united producer-consumers unless contractually relegated to half-roles (by marriage or job, usually), a whole lot of responsibility gets shouldered by indvidual persons.

And people tend not to take on more responsibilities than they have to.

Which is why they so often turn to governments to solve all their problems.

The chief cost of consumerism might seem to be best expressed in taxes or social welfare functions. But it is really in terms of your soul.