The human race obviously needs external goods merely to survive.
And to live a life in accord with our human dignity we need more than simply the bare necessities that survival requires. But I suppose that few will deny that we often produce things that are neither necessary for survival nor that really enhance human life. One need simply wander through a shopping mall to conclude that many of the products of human industry are really just junk. But it is this junk, together with the more necessary and worthwhile things that we produce, that keeps our consumer economy going. If Americans stopped buying more than was strictly necessary or genuinely desirable, then where would we be? The current recession has been portrayed as a crisis of demand, that is, ordinary people are not receiving enough income to purchase all that industry could produce. Hence unemployment, lower demand, and then more unemployment and still lower demand as the economy continues to shrink. Therefore the way to rekindle the economy is to stimulate demand. This can be done most directly by putting people to work so that their incomes will buy the products and services they and others can produce or provide. But wait—what products are we talking about? About necessary or useful products or about junk? I am far from denying that right now many go without useful or even necessary goods or services. This is a crime and scandal in a country as rich as ours. But much of the drop in spending is for things such as bigger or fancier electronic gadgets that I would contend are neither necessary nor really useful, but upon the sale of which our economy is based.
Now I am sure that this assertion will provoke a howl from some. After all, who am I to decide what is good for others? Well, I am less interested in convincing readers that any particular item is useless or junk than I am in convincing them of the fact that such junk does exist and that it is neither necessary nor good for us.
Although one should hardly be unduly restrictive about this, still we can assert that there is some rough amount of goods and services which the human race either absolutely needs or truly benefits from. Beyond that we have unnecessary things or often just plain junk. If mankind could produce all the goods and services that are necessary or helpful to us by working just two hours a day (say), why should we work more than those two hours? The time would be better spent with our families, in relaxation and in that most neglected of activities, the worship of God. In such circumstances it would be silly to claim there was a crisis of underemployment and that we should all work eight hours so we would have enough money to buy these extra and unnecessary products that were produced during those extra hours of work.
But that is exactly what we try to do now. Keep the factories humming, we are told, never mind what they are making. But the earth, which God gave us for our home, does not have enough storage space in which we can put all the castoffs of the things we make, including toxic wastes and chemicals. Of course we have to arrange things so that everyone can produce or earn enough to purchase what he needs and what really will enhance his life. But beyond that we can rest from our labors. If our economy depends on consumers buying things they don’t need, things which will hurt our own souls and often will harm our physical environment, then something is radically wrong with our economy. And something is wrong with it. Capitalism.
Capitalism, the separation of ownership from work, while not inherently evil—in theory there could be a just and reasonable Capitalism—has always operated such that the purpose of the economy is more or less forgotten. Each capitalist is interested in making and selling. That is the purpose of production, sales. Whether the product is actually useful to human beings is secondary. That is why advertising is necessary to persuade us we have a need that otherwise we might not have noticed. In fact the entire capitalist apparatus of advertising creates imaginary needs filled by largely useless goods, and when the demand for these goods falters because of lack of consumer buying power, then the whole economy goes into recession. As the late Fr. John Hardon. S.J. put it, “We live in the age of advertising, when the economy of whole nations depends on making products appealing no matter what their real value or utility may be”.1 But we are not prisoners of this system. There is a better way if we choose to embrace it.
That better way is Distributism. With Distributism most workers will also be owners, either owners of small businesses, farms or workshops, or joint owners of the larger enterprises at which they work. As such, they will not simply be interested in sales, because they will be first producers, people who identify as the maker of a product, who will tend to take pride in something well-made and useful. Production will thus tend to be seen as rationally related to mankind’s need for goods, not to the ability to convince others to buy something, regardless of whether it is necessary or useful, or useless and perhaps even harmful. No discussion of economics that does not start from the obvious and inherent purpose of the economy as a whole—the supplying of necessary and useful goods to humanity—can be a realistic or intelligent account of man’s economic activity.
So yes, the current recession is at bottom a crisis of demand. But no genuine and lasting solution will be found simply by stimulating demand so that we can produce more and more junk, even if everyone has the income to fill his house with junk twice over. This is an insane way to live. Rather we need to remember that we engage in productive activities not for their own sake, or to hoodwink someone to buy whatever it is we make, but to supply our own and our fellow men’s needs, so that we can then devote our lives and our time to what is more important than mere production. Any notion of economics that does not recognize this is just hot air.