Vote with Your Money

It is all very well to theorize about the simple life – to debate definitions and evaluate justifications – but theory is empty if it is not grounded upon practice. Accordingly, this post and the following posts seek to enrich the preceding theoretical discussions by providing a preliminary exposition of how the idea of voluntary simplicity is actually lived by participants in the movement. In later posts the practice of simplicity will be explored in much more detail. For now, let us begin with the question of money.

Although practising simplicity is much more than just being frugal with money and consuming less – it is also a state of mind – in a market economy spending wisely plays a central role.[1] In Your Money or Your Life, Dominguez and Robin provide elaborate financial exercises for readers to undertake which seek to provoke reflection on the real value of money and the real cost of things.[2] Such exercises may sound mundane and a bit pointless – everybody assumes they are careful, rational spenders – but if it is carried out with precision the results may well surprise, and perhaps even shock. One might find that seemingly little purchases add up to an inordinate amount over a whole year, which may raise new and important questions about whether the money might have been better spent elsewhere, not at all, or exchanged for more time by working less. Then consider how much would be spent in each category over ten years. The aim of this exercise is not to create tightwads, as such, but smart consumers who are conscious of the time/life/ecological cost of their purchases. After all, as Thoreau would insist, ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of… life which is required to be exchanged for it.’[3] When exploring voluntary simplicity in this light, one might well find that some reductions and changes to spending habits, rather than inducing any sense of deprivation, will instead be life-affirming.

When it comes to spending money in accordance with the ethos of voluntary simplicity, it is also important to bear in mind Vicki Robin’s profound democratic insight: That how we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world.[4] Purchasing something sends a message, consciously or unconsciously, to the marketplace, affirming the product, its ecological impact, its process of manufacture, etc. Simple living, therefore, involves shopping as conscientiously as possible, directing one’s monetary ‘votes’ into socially and ecologically responsible avenues and boycotting irresponsible avenues.[5] A tension can arise here, of course, because shopping conscientiously or ‘ethically’ tends to be (but is not always) more expensive.[6] If it is true, however, that market expenditure is a vote on what exists in the world then it would seem that the global consumer-class has the potential to become a non-violent revolutionary class and change the world, simply by changing its spending habits.[7] Simplicity is the new spectre haunting capitalism. Never before have so many people had the option of casting off the chains of consumer culture, stepping out of the rat race, and living (and spending) in opposition to the existing order of things. Money is power, and with this power comes responsibility.[8]

Consumers of the world unite!

[1] This depends on consumers being ‘informed,’ which depends, in part, upon good labelling of commodities. See James Salzman, ‘Sustainable Consumption and the Law’ (1997) 27 Environmental Law 1243.

[2] Joseph Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence (New ed, 1999).

[3] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden‘ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 286.

[4] The idea of ‘voting with your money,’ however, would be more accurately attributed to John Ruskin. See generally, Goldian Vanenbroeck (ed), Less is More: An Anthology of Ancient and Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity (1991) 63.

[5] This is not meant to suggest that ‘market mechanisms,’ in themselves, will be an adequate path to ecological protection or social justice. Nor is this an argument for what might be called ‘green consumerism’ (i.e. consumerism by another name). The point is that in a market society, expenditure is one way, among others, for individuals to ‘vote on what exists in the world.’ See generally, Daniel Finn, The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice (2006).

[6] See David Bosshart, Cheap? The Real Cost of Living in a Low Price, Low Wage World (2006).

[7] Michele Micheletti, Political Virtue and Shopping: Individuals, Consumerism, and Collective Action (2010) (providing a theoretically sophisticated, empirically rich examination of the increasingly important phenomenon of politically and ethically motivated market expenditure).

[8] See Clive Barnett et al, ‘The Political Ethics of Consumerism’ (2005) 15(2) Consumer Policy Review 45.

2 Responses to “Vote with Your Money”

  1. tim says:

    “How we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world”

    Does anybody have any comments on how this applies to investments and savings?

    Are we supporting consumption by investing in shares? Do we enhance corporate greed by leaving our money in big banks? Is property investment any better?

    I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on where their savings are best employed from a VS perspective.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    I’m afraid there is no simple answer to your important question. You seem very aware of the complex and sometimes contradictory issues at play. Profit maximisation seems less problematic when the company is ‘ethical,’ so if you are wanting to invest, that’s probably the best way to proceed, provided the company is genuinely ‘ethical’ and not just saying so. That itself can be a complex evaluation. I do know some people who have ‘spare’ money and choose not to invest on the basis of not wanting to support ‘growth capitalism.’ But, like you say, that might mean the aim of working less is more challenging. Ultimately there is no ‘one right answer’ to this type of dilemma. It’s one example of how challenging it can be to live simply in a consumer driven, growth-based economy. Sorry I can’t be of more help, and don’t know of any resources that could replace your own on-going reflection. Seek that ‘happy medium’ to which you referred. Perhaps in the new year I’ll have time to address this very issue in a post, where I can unpack it more detail.

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