Guest post by Luis Enrique
Consumerism relies on persuading us that we want and need to buy more stuff, indeed that we should feel unhappy because we haven’t yet got enough stuff. As Professor Tim Jackson has put it: “We buy things we don’t need with money we haven’t got to make impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about.
This is definitely something that attracts me more to the right than the left. Right-wingers are, I think, more likely to think people know their own minds and can be left to look out for themselves, whereas left-wingers are more likely to draw a line between themselves and everybody else, and regard the masses as manipulated by corporations whilst they themselves perceive what is really going on.
Chris Dillow has come up with the very useful concept of: small truth big error, and I think this is an example of that.  I am not for a moment suggesting that advertising doesn’t work or that consumer excess does not exist, but I think that’s a small part of the story which gets blown up into everything.
I don’t buy things I don’t need with money I don’t have to impress people I don’t care about. I really don’t. And even if you could pore over my transactions and diagnose a few instances of blind consumerism, they would account for a tiny fraction of my economic life. And OK, I’m probably at the frugal end of things, and I’m sure people exist at the other end of the scale, but really I think this picture of people as hypnotised consumer robots is an offensive lie. 
Economists start by saying people have preferences over goods and services, and then go out and buy what they want, taking their budget into account. I like apples more than oranges, I buy apples more than oranges.  Now obviously our preference are rather more complicated that a static ranking – we experiment, we change our minds – but this basic conception, call it rational choice, is widely derided by lefties who think it’s much cleverer to regard people as helpless in the grip of corporate mind-rays.
Imagine for a moment that advertising did not exist except to inform people about products: “New: Levi’s blue jeans! Blue. Made out of cotton. $50.” would be a far as things went. And now imagine that people conform to the rational choice model and simply buy what they want. How close would that world be to our world? Not identical – of course incorporating the full scope of advertising would change some things – but by how much?
In this simpler world, people would of course buy things they don’t need (what kind of psychopath thinks we should only buy what we “need”?). Kids would still want Sony Playstations because Sony Playstations kick ass. I would still hate those soft suede slip-on shoes that look like a cross between deck shoes and slippers because I am an inverse snob; the introduction of advertisements trying to persuade me they are desirable would not change a damn thing there.
Of course it’s true that advertising shapes desires, and I don’t want Coca-Cola shoving their sugar water down the throats of school children any more than you do. But I think it’s a big error to exaggerate that small truth and downplay people’s ability to make up their own minds.
I think this kind of thing helps explain the fact that whilst left-wingers see themselves as defenders of working class people, a mystifying large proportion of working class people dislike left-wingers so much they vote for a party whose economic platform consists of tax cuts for the rich.
Left wingers like to display how good they are at “understanding” the plight of the downtrodden, unlike those dumb right wingers. I suggest they try to understand what it feels like to be an X-Factor watching, Primark shopping, Playstation owning ordinary person, and to pick up The Guardian to find it oozing contempt for your choices, and have it explained to you how you can’t watch a fucking advertisement without obediently opening your wallet.
 It is also somewhat related to my clumsily-titled notion the fallacy of clever objections.
 My bet is that few of the people who like to crap on about consumerism and advertising think that it really applies to them: it’s those morons at the shopping mall.
 Economists don’t imagine that’s all there is to it. Many of them simply regard figuring out how preferences are formed as not particularly relevant to understanding inflation, or whatever they happen to be studying. In fact, economists are increasingly recognising the importance of social norms in determining economic outcomes.