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High Consumption and Global Justice

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Justice requires that high consumption in affluent societies be slowed down for the sake of eradicating extreme poverty in the developing world and improving the condition of its very moderate consumers. High consumption places environmental and resource burdens and restrictions on the economic growth options of developing countries without bringing commensurate benefits. Moreover, high consumers enjoy products made in less developed countries by workers who have inadequate wages and often labor in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.

Contemporary high consumption is characterized by a continuous raising of the standards of satisfactory spending. This process is visible in many American consumption patterns: Middle-class Americans live in significantly larger homes with more bathrooms than only a few decades ago, drive cars with more gadgets, buy ever more fancy audio-visual systems and personal computers, and so on. It is this upscaling that must be ended. Gains in productivity and environmental efficiency should be used not to support escalating consumption in the affluent societies, but rather to assist economic growth in the developing countries and provide these countries with more "ecological space" for their growth.

A slowdown of high consumption for the sake of ending worldwide poverty can be realized through a social regulation of the global economy. This social regulation should include labor standards, environmental measures, rules for global capital investments, and a distributive schema that shifts some of the wealth obtained from globalization from the rich countries to the developing world. A promising schema is Thomas Pogge's proposal for a dividend to be paid to the global poor for the extraction of limited resources. To avoid that the social regulation of the global economy would have a regressive impact on lower-income groups in the affluent societies, a progressive consumption tax should be adopted with a standard deduction large enough so that these groups would not have to pay any tax at all. This consumption tax would further slow down upscale spending.

Appeals to justice alone will not suffice to change high consumption patterns. Such appeals may work insofar as continuous upscaling is based on competitive acquisition, especially since high consumers also have in interest in avoiding international conflicts caused by global poverty. However, upscale consumption also has a hedonic element: It is pleasurable to discover and explore new goods, develop new desires, create new forms of self-expressions, and the like. It is, therefore, imperative that simplicity as a lifestyle and value be articulated and promoted.

Attempts to slow down high consumption through a social regulation of the global economy will meet two institutional limits, the sovereign state and capitalism. In the final instance, justice and joyful simplicity for all humans may require cosmopolitan democracy and socialism.


All Rights Reserved to Dr. Harry van der Linden. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the American Philosophical Association, Central Division, Session of Radical Philosophy Association, Chicago, April 20-23, 2000; 28th Conference on Value Inquiry, Values in an Age of Globalization, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, April 13-15, 2000; Congreso Interamericano de Filosofía, Puebla, Mexico, August 16-20, 1999; and 3rd Biennial Conference of the Radical Philosophy Association, San Francisco State University, November 1998. The present (expanded) version of this paper was accepted for publication in Values in an Age of Globalization, the selected proceedings of the 28th Conference on Value Inquiry, but for budgetary reasons the volume was never printed.