The Irony of “Buy Nothing Day”

There is an event/group on Facebook calling itself “Buy Nothing Day”, in regards to Black Friday. The idea is to, well, not partake in the rampant consumerism that characterizes the day after Thanksgiving. Of course, as should be obvious, the majority of people participating in this event are leftist college students. They rage against the mindless individualism and greedy consumerism of modern day capitalism. The very idea of spending money on cheap foreign products makes them sick.

So, to combat the capitalist machine, they will all refrain from spending money whilst wearing their Che shirts and waving the Communist Manifesto proudly through the air. The irony, of course, is that these capitalist-hating individuals have implicitly rejected today’s dominant leftist economic theory which states that consumer spending is what drives the economy and leads to our high-standard of living. The typical narrative goes something like this: “Consumer spending makes up 70% of our GDP! The only way to get out of the recession is to increase spending, which puts money into businesses, who then ramp of production, which requires them to hire more workers, and suddenly the economy is back on track!” Now, as Dr. Robert Higgs points out here, consumer spending has not been the problem. Consumer spending only fell a few percentage points since the recession began back in 2008. It’s investment that really took the hit.

In more formal economic terms, many economists today (those calling themselves Keynesians) believe the problem with the economy today is that aggregate demand has fallen and, in order to get the economy back on track, aggregate demand has to be boosted. There are two ways this could be done: Government spending, and consumer spending. If consumers would only go out and began spending once again, businesses would hire more people and the economy would right itself. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen because consumers fear uncertainty, and so begin saving. This increased savings (non-consumption) further depresses the economy. At this point, government is supposed to pick up the extra slack in the economy and spend enough to get businesses hiring again.

If the Keynesian theory is to be believed, “Buy Nothing Day” can only further deteriorate the state of the economy. At any rate, it certainly won’t help. These people’s decision to not consume is going to contribute to lower wages, more unemployment, and further depressed housing prices. Not good, right?

I would argue, however, that there is nothing economically harmful when it comes to “Buy Nothing Day”. Indeed, I don’t believe the problem is with a lack of aggregate demand. Spending does not drive the economy, savings does. One cannot consume oneself into prosperity. Prosperity and rising living standards require that some people putting aside some consumption today in order to consume more tomorrow. If we imagine a man, alone, on an island with some fruit trees, we know that he can either consumer all of the fruit on the trees, or he can consume some of the fruit and plant more fruit trees for the future. If he consumes all of the fruit today he will certainly be well off for a short period of time. Perhaps until the next evening, or so. But after that he will have nothing left to eat until the trees grow more fruit. Clearly, if this man wants to have something to eat for the future he will engage in some non-consumption in order to consume more later.

To the extent that “Buy Nothing Day” leads to less consumption today (savings) and more consumption later, I think it will be a good thing. I doubt it will have much effect on the economy, but in principle it sounds right. The economy needs more savings to finance greater output in the future. The irony with this whole thing, however, is that the people participating in this event are probably the same people calling on the government to spend more money in order to get us out of the recession. Is spending the problem, or is spending the solution? Which is it, guys?

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