Against “The Simple Life”
Posted on June 6, 2015
A popular error relating to concentrations of wealth is manifested in pious calls for “the simple life.” This is the idea that we should make do with less and less — almost subsistence living. (Not quite: after all, good Christian Americans, even the economic moralizers, still need absolute necessities like corn-fueled cars and fresh organic pomegranate juice. It takes lots of money to live the “simple” lifestyle these days.)
Still, the idea is that we are helping the economy and not oppressing others if we spend less and buy almost everything used and live as much as possible on the bare necessities.
It would be hard to envision a more selfish, self-centered, economically catastrophic strategy.
Let me illustrate this truth by a conversation I once had. A friend and I were talking about Christians and wealth. He stated, “There’s no reason for a Christian to spend $80,000 for a car. Nobody needs an $80,000 car. That’s just plain wrong!”
I said, “Why would you want to snatch food from the table of little, needy children? Why would you want to promote poverty and throw people out of work.”
He apparently wasn’t following, so I explained: “Some of the workers who made that $80,000 car don’t even make $80,000 a year. They have children to feed. They feed those children with the payment they get from the $80,000 that a rich man or woman spends on the car they make. But if people quit buying these cars under the guise of piety, they lose that livelihood and their children suffer.”
I said something else to him: “If nobody needs an $80,000 car, why do they need a $15,000 van like you drive? $15,000! Do you know much food $15,000 will buy? You could walk or make it on a bicycle. By much of the world’s standards, a $15,000 van is a luxury. It’s not in principle any less luxurious than an $80,000 Mercedes, certainly not to people in much of the Third World.”
But this problem with “the simple life” is lost on too many of the economically pious.
There’s an important fact that too many people seem unaware of: A large and prosperous middle class is impossible without a leisure and luxury culture. The reason many of us can have a comfortable life is that a few very rich people buy luxury goods and services that the lower and middle classes help provide.
Which is to say that “the simple life” is a form of pious self-indulgence. It harms good, hard-working people. It’s a high price to pay for aversion to paying high prices for luxury goods.