Diversity and consumerism


Jason Collins


June 17, 2011

In Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (earlier posts on his book here, here and here - this is the last one for now), Miller discusses how there might be a move away from a consumerist culture. To do this, there is a need to develop and maintain social norms that could act as an alternative to the typical displays of wealth. For example, in a religious community, signalling could be through time and resources given to the church.

However, Miller stated that there is a major legal obstacle to establishing these norms. The obstacle is that the laws about property ownership and rental do not allow discrimination. Despite the good intentions, Miller considers that “they have toxic side effects on the ability of voluntarily organized communities to create the physical, social, and moral environments that their members want.”

There is no shortage of literature on the effects of diversity on trust and cooperation within communities. Miller notes some of Robert Putnam’s work:

For example, the political scientist Robert Putnam has found that American communities with higher levels of ethnic diversity tend to have lower levels of “social capital” - trust, altruism, cohesion, and sense of community. He and his colleagues analyzed data from thirty thousand people across forty-one U.S. communities, and found that people who live in communities with higher ethnic diversity (meaning, in the United States, more equal mixtures of black, Hispanic, white, and Asian citizens) tend to have lower:

  • trust across ethnic groups
  • trust within their own ethnic group
  • community solidarity and cohesion
  • community cooperation
  • sense of political empowerment
  • confidence in local government and leaders
  • voter registration rates
  • charity and volunteering
  • investment in common goods
  • interest in maintaining community facilities
  • rates of carpooling
  • numbers of friends
  • perceived quality of life
  • general happiness
These effects remained substantial even after controlling for each individual’s age, sex, education, ethnicity, income, and language, and for each community’s poverty rate, income inequality, crime rate, population density, mobility, and average education.

As communities cannot group on norms, Miller states that communities group based on income.  Wealth becomes the measure of status and competition between individuals in the community is then dependent on displays of wealth. He states that “if the local majority cannot impose some distinctive social norms on our forms of trait signaling, conspicuous consumption will remain the only game in town.” You are limited to choosing your neighbours through the use of economic stratification:

Sadly, it has become almost impossible now for like-minded people to arrange to live together in a small community with cohesive social norms. Real norms can be sustained effectively only by selecting who moves in, by praising or punishing those who uphold or violate norms as residents, and by expelling those who repeatedly violate the norms. These are the requirements to sustain the type of cooperation called network reciprocity, in which cooperators form local “network clusters” (communities) in which they help one another.

I am not confident that if communities could discriminate and assort as they see fit that wealth would not be a major cause of assortment. Still, assuming that these laws are as much of a barrier as Miller suggests (I am not particularly familiar with United States discrimination laws), there would almost certainly be some groups that wish to assort on certain criteria. And why not let them? If it builds community trust and cooperation, that is a good thing. I am sure that some communities would form on bases that are abhorrent to others, but you don’t have to live there.