To Consume or To Contribute?

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(Third in a series that explores the implications of Sandel’s work: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good?)

The Disappearance of Work

It is remarkable that the massive reduction in the need for human work is unaccompanied by significant public discourse.1

The absence of serious public discussion may be related to our culture’s saturation with images of consumption and a corresponding inclination to value consumption over production. Our preoccupation with consumption (rather than production) would in this case reflect the decreasing economic relevance of work and workers: While automation and artificial intelligence imply that fewer workers are necessary to bring products to market, the felt need to create consumers for such products is limitless.

The Centrality of Identity

Although Sandel invokes “love of consumption”2 to explain the absence of public discourse relating to work, a tendency to value consumption over production cannot be understood without reference to an economy that is increasingly predicated on stimulating demand and progressively untethered to the need for human work. The “love” of consumption to which Sandel refers is at least to some degree conditioned by economic and cultural forces that value people as consumers rather than producers.

The Postman (Joseph Roulin) (1888) by Vincent Van Gogh.

Our identity – who or what we think we are – is increasingly expressed in terms of consumeristic preferences.3 Since businesses increasingly require fewer and fewer workers4, the interests of business can be expected to be less focused on the skills and well-being of the work force than on increasing the number of consumers for their products. To the extent that identity derives from economic realities, identities will increasingly be fashioned out of the products and services one selects to consume rather than on the goods or services one produces.

Enmity and Resentment

Political solutions that emphasize increasing purchasing power are unlikely to diminish anger and destructiveness because “the injury that most animates the resentment of working people is (that which detracts from) their status as producers.”5 The injury that working people have sustained is the combined effect of two forces:

  • “Meritocratic sorting”, i.e., workers are not selected for opportunities or positions that allow them to be rewarded with status and prestige.
  • Globalization, because it renders domestic workers less economically relevant and hence less prosperous.

Regardless of the cause, an increasing tendency to see ourselves as consumers – and to value consumption over production – erodes values that promote the worker’s estimation of him or herself.

Cultivating Identities Based on Contribution

“Fellowship, community, shared patriotism – these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.” They come instead from “dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a (person) say to (the) community, to the family, to the country, and most important, to (him or herself), ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures’.” 6

Robert F. Kennedy

There is good reason to suspect that our society would function more effectively and harmoniously – and that individuals would experience a greater sense of personal fulfillment – if we were to emphasize our role as producers rather than consumers. 7

A wiser conception of the common good acknowledges that the health and well-being of an individual or society cannot be gauged by “simply adding up preferences or maximizing consumer welfare.” The common good requires that we reflect critically about our preferences and that we develop a “certain way of thinking about work.” It is in our role as producers – rather than consumers – that we develop and exercise our abilities to fulfill the needs of our fellow citizens and win social esteem. 8

Public discourse and ameliorative social change entail acknowledgement of the injury done to those whose who do not receive recognition for their contribution. Constructive discourse must acknowledge that economic and cultural changes have diminished opportunities for working people to contribute and receive rewards for doing so.

An agenda that renews the dignity of work diminishes anger, resentment, and destructiveness because such negative emotions and behaviors are “at least in part a crisis of recognition.” The need for recognition can be fulfilled if we identify as producers, not consumers, because in our role as producers “we contribute to the common good and win recognition for doing so.”


1. Automation and Artificial Intelligence will continue to eliminate the need for many, if not most, types of human work. See Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Andrew. The Second Machine Age. Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. WW Norton & Company.New York. 2014.

2. Sandel, Michael. The Tyranny of Merit. What’s Become of the Common Good? Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York. 2020. Page 211.

3. For further discussion of the price of freedom from necessity, see also “Labor, Work and Necessity: The Ideas of Hannah Arendt”:

4. This trend, which has occasionally been noted in popular periodicals for over a decade, has only accelerated: “Fifty years ago, the four most valuable U.S. companies employed an average of 430,000 people with an average market cap of $180 billion. This year, the four largest U.S. companies employ an average 120,000 people with an average market cap of $334 billion. The titans of 2011 have twice the value of their 1964 counterparts with a quarter of the employees.”(Italics mine).

5. Sandel, page 212.

6. Sandel quotes RF Kennedy on page 212.

7. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life. Harper & Row, 1990.

8. Sandel, page 209.

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