This review looks at William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. The review begins with a brief introduction to the author before summarizing some of Cavanaugh's main critiques of the free market, consisting most of the review's focus. The review concludes by highlighting the Christian responses advocated in light of the current circumstances. Those interested in delving further into the interplay between theology and economics will find both this review and the book an intriguing read.
Those who are looking for a concise theological response to North American consumerist society should pick up a copy of William T. Cavanaugh’s new book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008).
Cavanaugh, a Roman Catholic theologian with a special interest in theological ethics, takes on such topics as free market economy, consumerism, globalization, economic abundance, and world hunger not simply to point out what is wrong with certain economic practices of our age, but also to recommend an informed Christian alternative.
The book begins with
Cavanaugh’s sharp critique of the modern “free-market” and its fundamentally
flawed view of freedom. The modern notion of the “free-market” is flawed, says
Cavanaugh, because it defines freedom negatively, as an absolute freedom from
any external constraints. He believes it is precisely this concept of freedom,
resting upon the dubious modern notion of a completely “autonomous individual”,
and absent of any orientation toward a greater good, that leaves the
“free-market” vulnerable to the domination of the arbitrary power of one will
over another. A proper view of freedom within a market economy, says Cavanaugh,
must be defined positively as a freedom for a good and purposeful end.
Cavanaugh notes that the “free-market” notion of human desire also suffers a fatal flaw. In the modern “free-market” economy human desires are comprised of nothing more than a literally “end-less” list of individual wants and preferences. But, according to Cavanaugh, this concept of desire is highly problematic because it overlooks the fact that human desires are fundamentally social. In his view, once desires become focused on individuals and are detached from any sense of objectively good social ends they cease to be real desires at all. Thus, the modern “free-market”, which seeks to foster such individualistic desires, ultimately compromises our humanity.
Ironically, therefore, Cavanaugh contends that the so-called “free-market”, having been detached from objectively good ends, actually leaves consumers vulnerable to economic enslavement under an advertising saturated society, controlled and surveyed by a small handful of transnational corporations. This small but powerful sector possesses the research and marketing “know-how” to produce artificially created consumer desires that are capable of dictating our choices for us.
Cavanaugh expands upon this rather grim picture of the enslavement of our economic freedom and desires by highlighting the intentional lack of information that the so-called “free-market” supplies to consumers. The leading economist, Milton Friedman believes that the only information a consumer in a free-market needs access to when making a market decision is the price of a particular product. But, Cavanaugh challenges this assumption, asserting that this minimalist approach to consumer information is far from sufficient.
In order to put this claim into perspective, Cavanaugh offers us a simple example from the meat market. He points out that consumers at large scale supermarkets are often poorly informed of the awful conditions that typical beef cattle have to endure before arriving neatly packaged at the shop floor – living in manure littered feedlots, forced onto a diet of protein supplements and drugs, given hormone implants, fed antibiotics to combat the onset of bacterial infection due to unnatural growth spurts, allowed to expend 248 gallons of oil to fuel its corns consumption, and sprayed with disinfectant after slaughter to irradiate fecal bacteria. Cavanaugh challenges us to question whether the consumer in this example is truly free to make a market decision based on pricing information alone. If we are convinced that she is not, and that there is indeed something drastically wrong with the “free-market” definition of consumer freedom, then perhaps we ought to ask along with Cavanaugh: When is a market truly free?
Unlike the modern “free-market” notion of freedom and desire, a Christian notion of freedom and desire pursues a social end; a working towards a goal of greater communal good, which is ultimately directed towards a gracious God. For Cavanaugh this means, in all likelihood, being willing to pay a higher than normal price for a steak from a local farmer who openly informs you about his ethical practices. In so doing we exercise true market freedom in the pursuit of a greater good such as the ethical treatment of livestock, support for our local community, and care for the creation.
How can Christians exercise true market freedom? Cavanaugh says, “From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labour and communities, so that real communal discernment of good can take place. Those are the spaces in which true freedom can flourish” (p. 32).
Being Consumed is framed within the author’s basically correct
affirmation that each of us participates within a wider story that gives shape
to our lives and informs the ethical choices we make. Cavanaugh presents us
with two very different stories of Western economy from which we may choose to
The first narrates an economy controlled by an endless chain of consumer desires that are detached from good and meaningful ends; an economy in which our intense appetite to consume is never satisfied because it is based on a false view of freedom, desire and human community.
The second narrates a more hopeful economy in which consumption is motivated by the only really true and free desire, directed towards love of God and of neighbour. This economy, in being formed by the act of the Eucharist, does not see economic transactions in terms of competition and private arbitrary exchange between autonomous individuals, but rather as communal giving and receiving in common participation in life of the Triune God.
In this review I have presented only a brief sketch of what you can expect to find throughout Being Consumed. Hopefully I have sparked enough of your interest to find out more. I thoroughly recommend Being Consumed for the author’s recognition that the issues facing economic practice are theological at their core. Perhaps more importantly, Cavanaugh has a sincere practical concern for Christians to live responsibly and faithfully in God’s creation. At the conclusion of each chapter he offers inspiring real life examples of various individuals and communities that are currently making efforts to construct alternative economic spaces in which genuinely free production and consumption can take place.
No doubt, some readers will prefer a closer treatment than what Cavanaugh offers of the Biblical text and its account of economics in, say, the life of Israel. Some are likely to question Cavanaugh’s choice of theological resources, or the radical nature of his approach. I can, however, commend this book as one very important voice in the growing theological conversation on the topic of theology and economics. Cavanaugh’s book raises many of the right questions that Christians who seek to live faithfully in creation must be asking and seeking to answer. It certainly helped me to see some of my own misdirected consumer habits in a new light and to make some difficult but important changes, which I believe will make a positive difference.
Source: Marketplace Institute