The Economics of Consumption

By Charles S. Wyand | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 16
LEVELS OF LIVING

Thus far we have been discussing the consumer as an individual. In the strictest economic sense our analysis of consumption ends here. For, choices are made by individuals; the determinants of choice impinge upon individuals; and, where the distinction is drawn, economic status as a producer or consumer depends upon individual function. While it is true that the conventional economic unit in our society is the family, the housewife actually buys most of the products consumed by members of her household. When she does not act as purchasing agent some other member of the family does. Rarely, if ever, does the family as a unit buy anything. The fact that personal choices are frequently affected by the desires of other individuals within the family does not modify the individualistic nature of consumption. Rather it emphasizes the influence of human interaction on choice, a sociological fact we have already noted.

The family as an economic unit is of value to us however if we wish to measure the quantitative and qualitative effect of prevailing economic forces on the consumer. Such studies of income utilization yield invaluable data on consumption trends but they contribute nothing further to an understanding of the nature of consumption as a dynamic function.1 At best they indicate the relative influence exerted on choice by the specific causal factors discussed in the preceding chapters. Insofar as such data are of value, the study of planes of consumption by the economist is justified.2 But it should be clearly borne in mind that we are here dealing with the end products of the functioning of a set of forces rather than with a further analysis of those forces. It would be correct to say, therefore, that in this and the succeeding chapters we

____________________
1
This statement might be subjected to the following modification: Insofar as studies of consumption trends may be used to indicate the relative ability of specific determinants to manipulate choice, such studies contribute further insight into the formation of the choice pattern itself.
2
Unless the student believes that economics includes social welfare as a legitimate part of its subject matter. Cf. Hobson J. A., Economics and Ethics, ch. 5; Pigou A. C. , Wealth and Welfare; Carver T. N., Essays in Social Justice, ch. 10; and Anderson B. M., Social Value.

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