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Has capitalism devoured Christmas?

Spirituality vs. shopping

A mall Santa rides down the escalator at the North County Fair Mall in Escondido, Calif., last month. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Has capitalism desecrated Christmas? Many Christians are quick to claim it has, and there is reason to think that the modern celebration of Christmas is incompatible with Christianity. This can be understood most simply by juxtaposing the birth, life and message of Jesus of Nazareth with the civic rituals of Christmas.

According to the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus was born in a barn, there being no room for him and his parents in the inn at Bethlehem. His way of living forsook the acquisition of wealth and worldly goods. His message celebrated and elevated the poor, and he was quick to warn of the danger of materialism: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Two thousand years later, observe the Christmas celebration in our modern, capitalist culture: a shocking emphasis on gifts, material exchange and consumption. Christians believe that it is imperative to know Jesus and that to know him we have to live like him. It is very difficult to argue that the civic rituals of modern Christmas reflect Jesus’s way of living.

Christmas comes once a year, but it highlights a larger question: Does capitalism, and the consumerism it enables, have adverse effects on the moral character of individuals and society? Is modern capitalism incompatible with Christian living?

Here again, it is easy to argue that it is hard to live a deeply Christian life in a market economy. And not just because of the culture of consumption.

Markets value goods and services, but the story doesn’t stop there — society tends to value objects that are valued by markets more than those that aren’t. For example, the market places an explicit dollar value on my undertaking and completing another work-related project, and I can trade those dollars for more consumption. At the same time, the market does not (explicitly) place a price on an hour I spend with my wife, and I can’t use an extra hour with her to help pay this month’s grocery bill. Because the project’s dollar value is more explicit, it is easy for me to prioritize it above family time. It looms larger in my mind.

In a market economy, goods are (in large part) allocated according to the willingness and ability of individuals to purchase them. More income means higher-quality goods. This is important not just because a new BMW is more fun to drive than a used Toyota. More income can translate into an easier, less stressful life. If I made more money, then I would worry less about an unexpected illness; I could afford to live closer to work, where housing prices are higher, and I wouldn’t have to spend as much time commuting; I would worry less about being able to afford the tuition bills that are looming in the future.

Acting upon the healthy desire for an easier, less stressful life in a market economy can lead us to spend more and more time working, and less and less time with our spouses, raising our kids, serving our communities — for Christians, practicing the Christian virtues and meeting our Christian duties.

We are swimming in an ocean of price tags. Economists understand that those prices are signals that coordinate behavior. But they (usually, or are supposed to) coordinate behavior within markets. The good life — living Christian virtues — takes place in large part outside of markets, in families and communities. Because our life within markets looms so large, we must ask: Is capitalism crowding out the Christian life? And do we have special insight into this at Christmas?

The textbook understanding of the economics of Christmas giving is not encouraging. Here’s an example to explain the theory: As a general preference, I like books. As a Christmas gift, a friend who knows this about me buys me a book, but he misjudges my specific preferences and buys me a book that I do not like. This book costs my friend $27.99. This is a shame, because I value the book only at 12 cents. In this case, the gift exchange will have “wasted” $27.87 of value ($27.99 minus 12 cents) compared with the scenario in which my friend gives me $27.99 in cash so I can purchase whatever I most want. Cash, ergo, results in no “waste,” and so is superior to gifts.

Since this happens millions of times every Christmas, some economists conclude (with much too much self-satisfaction) that Christmas gift-giving creates massive economic waste. The scale of this waste is large — potentially billions of dollars annually.

If “the logic of capitalism” compels us to give cash instead of gifts, then the redeeming features of Christmas-meets-consumerism will have been eliminated.

But I don’t think it does.

Even though I may not particularly value some of the specific gifts I will receive this year, I will certainly value the thought my friends and family put into them, the time it takes them to purchase my gifts and the actual act of exchanging gifts itself.

The $27.87 difference between the amount at which I value the book and the amount my friend paid for it could be thought of as waste, as the textbooks say. But it is more accurately thought of as the social benefit of gift exchange. Add up all those exchanges, and we have billions of dollars of social benefit each Christmas.

And, ultimately, I also disagree with those who argue that capitalism makes living the Christian life harder.

Markets allow us to exchange goods and services. I have some money in my wallet, and (when my wife allows me) I take a few bucks to Taco Bell to buy a delicious snack. Does the fact that my taco has been commoditized change its character? Does the fact that I am purchasing it from a depersonalized corporation change mine?

No, I think. An apple remains an apple, whether it is given to me by my friend who owns an orchard or whether I purchase it at a fruit stand on K Street. Or at least, it remains sufficiently the same that we should not be concerned. The same is even true of the sublime experience of attending a Bruce Springsteen concert: Whether I was randomly selected to attend (in which case my concert seat has been allocated outside of a market) or I purchased a ticket (my seat has been allocated within a market), the three-plus hours of pure joy are largely the same, and the effect on my moral character is the same as well (positive, through edification and spiritual elevation).

Certainly not everything in our world can be commoditized in a morally healthy way. (To take an extreme example, consider human beings.) Markets are not morally neutral. Slapping a price tag on something and putting it on a shelf can change the character of the object being sold. Acquiring some objects through markets can change my character.

But to say that markets are not morally neutral is not an indictment of markets. Rather, it is a warning to those of us who are blessed to live among free markets. We must recognize that markets (properly understood) exist to advance human flourishing; humans do not exist to serve markets. The tail must never wag the dog. We must blunt the rough edges of markets through a social safety net designed to stop anyone from falling too far. We must use some of the wealth created by markets to help the poor, making sure that the least among us — who often can’t afford the prices markets assign to necessary goods — have enough to eat and that resources are available so that as many as possible can be offered a hand up into self-sufficiency. And we should keep markets out of places where they don’t belong.

We also shouldn’t forget the many virtues of markets. Markets generate wealth on a vast scale, which, used properly, enables the Christian life: It is much easier to live the Christian virtues and to meet our obligations to family and community when we aren’t worried about finding our next meal or freezing to death on a cold winter night. Markets require freedom, which is a virtue too easily overlooked. Markets are structured to enable the mutual benefit of participants.

What about the broader anti-capitalist critiques I discussed above? They are misplaced in large part because they let society and the individual off the hook. Economic theory may hold that individuals respond to incentives in a blind way, but that doesn’t mean they should — it doesn’t mean that the act of responding to incentives holds an individual unaccountable for his behavior.

It is true that the market explicitly values my taking on and completing another professional project, while it doesn’t explicitly value my taking Saturday off and spending quality time with my wife. But so what? As a Christian, I am obligated to give my wife the love and attention she deserves. So I should put away my laptop and spend time with her, regardless of the market consequences. The decision is mine to make, not the markets.

And it is true that if I work longer hours and earn more money it will be easier to be less worried about an unexpected illness and high (future) tuition bills, and to buy a house with a shorter commute. But as a Christian, I am obligated to obey Jesus, who commands me not to be afraid — to live bravely, in confidence. Anxiety about what might come tomorrow should not stop me from living as I ought today.

Furthermore, I am called to live the Christian life as a market participant: to treat my colleagues with respect, to recognize their full humanity in each interaction, to direct my professional life towards the common good, to be honest and fair. “Man is called to work,” reminds Pope St. John Paul II. That that work takes places within markets in no way diminishes the call, in no way lessens work as a path to holiness.

Of course markets can be an obstacle to the Christian life; markets are of this world, and this world — this fallen world — can corrupt. But the abolition of markets (heaven forbid) would not change the central challenge of the Christian life: To be worthy of redemption. If anything, their abolition would make it harder to meet that challenge.

Which brings us back to Christmas. As with many things in our fallen world, the moral appropriateness of Christianity-meets-consumerism depends on the ends to which consumption is directed. Christmas gifts should be about Christmas; Christmas should not be about Christmas gifts. If Christmas consumption is an end unto itself, then it is surely incompatible with the Christian life.

But the story changes if gifts are given and received in the service of love, in commemoration of what Christians believe to be the most important gift our creator ever gave us. If gifts are not elevated above their proper station, then they are perfectly compatible with celebrating the arrival of our redeemer — with hope realized, the waiting ended, the child in a manger, the star overhead.