I've been combing through my stack of issues of Wired over the last week, so do forgive me for being inspired by an article from December's gift-themed issue.
The article in question, "Why Thou Shalt Shop," by James Livingston asserts that shopping is good... for everyone. I for one shop like the stereotypical sitcom husband. I get in and out of the stores as soon as possible, and whenever possible, I have a detailed list prepared of what I need (and if buying gifts, for whom). I'm gradually getting used to making these lists on my phone with handy check-boxes. I like to be efficient, and I like the feeling of having acquired things, but I do not enjoy the "looking around with slow-moving bastards in my way" aspect of the mall or big-box store shopping trip.
I'm the first to admit that I am not the average consumer. For one, I don't carry a balance on my credit cards. Second, I don't drive, so I'm unable to purchase more stuff than I can carry (unless I order stuff online, which I'm not inclined to do.) Third, I'm especially cheap. I don't like to buy anything that's not on sale and will regularly search online for the least expensive alternative. Only if that alternative comes with free shipping will I order online. So this is the frame of reference that I have.
Livingston appeals to the basic "stupid American" stereotypes like the inability to control oneself or to plan for the future and declares that one ought not be ashamed of these qualities.
The point that I latched onto (and highlighted) was that when you are shopping, particularly for others, you are treating them as ends in themselves. This is a Kantian idea, required, according to him, for ethical action. The quick explanation is that if you are going to be good, you must not use other people as means to your own ends; you cannot manipulate them in order to further your own status, but instead, you must act, if not specifically in their interest, you ought to consider their interest. Livingston holds that when you are buying gifts for various individuals, you are acting specifically in their interest and not your own.
That sounds nice, but in many cases, gifts are purchased out of obligation. Consider Valentine's day; I doubt that many people would have bought their significant others chocolate, flowers, and teddy bears on that day were it not marked as a holiday. They would not have been overcome by the spirit of giving and love and other such sappy things. Instead, they bought these gifts, in many cases, in order to keep their S.O.s from being angry with them.
Is that too bleak? Fine. Scratch the "being angry at your partner" bit. Let's say that they bought these things because it is polite. Everyone ought to be polite, regardless of who might get angry if they didn't. Desiring to be polite still is not the same as "I saw this and knew you'd love it, sweetie," and wanting to see the surprise and joy on someone's face when they open their gift.
Livingston, however, declares: "your goal in interacting with others is the acquisition of an emotional surplus, not money in the bank." He doesn't specify who the emotional surplus is for: you, or the giftee. If it's you, then you're using the person as an end to your own emotional surplus (whatever that is). Even if your goal is to give the other person an emotional surplus (along with a trinket), is that case when you find yourself buying a stack of Starbucks gift cards for your coworkers so that they won't do horrible things to your coffee? I'm afraid not.
I do plan on checking out Livingston's book,"Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, The Environment, and Your Soul," but I'll admit the reviews I've seen haven't been stellar (and that's including the ones that aren't by crazy right-wingers).