The Gadfly Bytes --
October 7, 2003
Consumer or Citizen?
Originally in The
Online Gadfly, April, 2002
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
There is no shape more terrible than this
More tongued with cries against the world's blind greed
More filled with signs and portents for the soul
More packed with danger to the universe.
The Man With a Hoe
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it
expects what never was and never will be... The people cannot be
safe without information.
What is this country coming to?
Are we Americans regarded by our "leaders" as free and rational citizens of
a functioning democracy, or merely as an aggregate of isolated and mindless
If we look for an answer to the media and to our political discourse, the
indications are not encouraging. There we may find that those who are
soliciting our votes and our political support
act like hucksters delivering
sales pitches to a "marketplace" of consumers, rather than honorable
advocates offering discerning and responsible citizens well-formed arguments
based upon confirmable evidence and logical inference.
The distinction between the consumer and the citizen is crucial to an
understanding of the causes of the degradation of our political
institutions. That distinction might also point the way toward a restoration
of our democracy.
The model consumer is the perfect egoist – "economic man." He sees the world
through "the mind's I" and is motivated by the desire to "maximize
preference satisfaction" (to use the economists' jargon). "Values" are
interpreted as "prices" – willingness to pay – and thus moral value (i.e.,
virtue and justice) is "factored out." Those with something to sell – be it
a product, a service or a candidate – address the consumer with any device
found to be effective: imagery, slogans, deception, fallacy, "spin," and
even slander and outright lies, if one can get away with it. If need be,
these devices include "junk science," as when the tobacco industry sets up
"research institutes" to "prove" that smoking is not harmful, or when the
fossil fuel industry concocts "scientific reports" to "prove" that global
warming is a "myth." (See my "Remedial
Economics for Regressives").
In contrast, the ideal citizen takes a "moral point of view," by perceiving
himself or herself as one equal member among many engaged in cooperative
activity for mutual advantage, i.e. a "community." The citizen, as a moral
agent, acts not only from personal desire, but also from abstract principle,
through which the citizen is enabled to recognize rights and
responsibilities in oneself and in others, and just laws and political
institutions in society. The moral point of view enables one to recognize
excellence in individuals ("virtues") and in societies ("justice"). As we
will elaborate below, these "moral values" are independent of economic
values ("prices"). In political debate, the ideal citizen (like an "ideal"
judge or juror) is unmoved by devious salesmanship and is persuaded by "the
better case" – the clearer presentation of facts, the greater weight of
evidence, and by the more coherent and consistent argument. (Prices vs.
values, and "the moral
point of view" are presented
at length in Parts II and III of my "In
Search of Sustainable Values").
In a nutshell, the governing impulse of the consumer is "I want." The
governing impulse of the citizen is "we need."
In fact, every individual is a mixture, in varying proportions, of both a
consumer and a citizen. Mark Sagoff expresses this point with great clarity
Last year I bribed a judge to fix a
couple of traffic tickets, and was glad to do so because I saved my
license. Yet, at election time, I helped to vote the corrupt judge out
of office. I speed on the highway, yet I want the police to enforce laws
against speeding... I send my dues to the Sierra Club to protect areas
in Alaska I shall never visit... And of course, I applaud the endangered
Species Act, although I have no earthly use for the Colorado Squawfish
or the Indiana bat... I have an 'ecology now' sticker on a car that
drips oil everywhere it's parked. (The Economy of the Earth, Cambridge,
1988, p. 52)
Sadly, it appears that the American public
is behaving ever more as a marketplace of consumers, and ever less as a
polity – a community of citizens. Surely our politics both reflects and
promotes this trend, as rational discourse and argument is replaced by such
marketing devices as imagery, slogans, and "spin."
Some cases in point:
Late in the Reagan administration, "60 Minutes" broadcast a segment dealing
with the Reagan policies toward senior citizens – social security, medicare,
etc. The script contained a devastating criticism of Reagan's broken
promises and the failure of his administration to address the problems of
the elderly. Over this text, the screen showed a smiling "Gipper" addressing
various crowds and token "citizens." After the broadcast, Michael Deaver,
Reagan's publicist, personally thanked the reporter, Leslie Stahl, for the
"very favorable" portrayal of the President. Stahl was stunned – this was
not the intended message. But as the media-savvy Deaver knew full well,
verbal content counted for little – image was everything.
The supremacy of imagery and connotation (the tools of salesmanship) over
evidence and logic, appears time and again in our political campaigns. In
the 1984 election, polls disclosed that on almost every issue, the public
preferred the Democratic to the Republican positions. Yet Reagan trounced
Mondale. Likewise in the 2000 campaign: the public overwhelmingly preferred
Gore's position on the issues to those of Bush. Moreover, during the
debates, Gore clearly displayed a superior mastery of facts and policy, not
to mention the English language. Yet the GOP "spin doctors" and the pundits
successfully directed public attention away from issues and content and
toward "drama criticism" – Gore's body language, and Bush's "likeability."
The GOP handlers had learned well the advertiser's rule: "Don't sell the
steak, sell the sizzle!"
The triumph of salesmanship over substance in politics is exemplified by the
use of polls and focus groups by campaign strategists. "Typical" voters are
meticulously studied, not for their ideas or their responses to arguments,
but for their gut reactions. "Real time" voter responses to campaign
speeches are electronically collated and graphically displayed. "Low
negative" words and phrases ("liberal") are then incorporated into attack
ads, and "high positive" words ("compassionate") are put to use in slogans
and speeches – hence "compassionate conservative." Fully formed ideas (which
require full sentences) and still less arguments (which require paragraphs
of coherently related sentences) have no place in this new science of "voter
With the voter reduced to a bundle of feelings and impulses – "preference
maps" as the economists call it – there is little perceived need either by
campaigners or the media, to deal with old-fashioned concepts such as
issues, evidence, argument or logical cogency. As reasoned argument
disappears from public discourse, the public loses interest in serious
discussion of public issues. In turn, the media cut back on programming
dealing with public issues. In what remains of "news" programs on the TV,
images and personalities (e.g., Jon Benet, Monica, OJ, Condit/Chandra, Kobe)
replace issues (social security, economic justice, civil liberties, campaign
finance). Serious on-air discussion is derided as "talking heads." (By
"talking heads" is meant such insignificant events as the Sermon on the
Mount and the Gettysburg Address). "Entertainment" becomes the supreme
commodity in the media – thence "info-tainment" and "edu-tainment."
In sum, we are being treated more and more as mere bundles of "gut
preferences," by our political leaders, and by the oligarchy that selects,
finances and thus "owns" these politicians. (By "oligarchy," I mean
primarily individuals among that fortunate one-percent that owns 40% of the
national wealth, virtually all of the mass media, and which is the recipient
of half of George Bush's tax refund). And because we are treated by the
oligarchs as "mere consumers," we are evolving, ever more toward that
strange abstraction, "economic man" – perfect egoists striving for a maximum
satisfaction of "felt preferences," bereft of dignity, autonomy, compassion,
self-sacrifice. "Civil society" – a community of shared ideals – is being
replaced by an aggregate of alienated individuals who "bowl alone" and
retreat to the their private sanctuary in front of the TV. (See my"On
To the oligarchs, the ideal "citizen" (better, "resident") is a worker who
produces wealth efficiently, consumes and wastes thoughtlessly and lavishly,
and willingly turns over the product of his labor to the oligarchs. In
addition, this ideal resident, while well-trained so as to increase
productivity, will not be well-educated to think critically or creatively,
for original and dissenting ideas may upset the efficiency of the
marketplace. Instead, this individual will obediently acquire the tastes,
political loyalties and consumer preferences as dictated by the oligarchs,
and will not be distracted from his or her function as an ideal consumer by
troublesome political ideals. These individuals in Marketplace America are
not "created equal," rather they are valued in proportion to their wealth –
and by extension enjoy political power in proportion to their capacity to
Thus American society is coming more and more to resemble a
"corporate-nation," with the public at large as employees, the oligarchs as
stockholders, and the politicians as corporation managers.America, Inc.
What?! You don't approve? Well, you'd better follow Ari Fleischer's advice
and "watch what you say" if you are not to be condemned as an "enemy of
freedom." So shaddup, get back to the hive and make more honey. The
plutocratic drones are getting impatient.
This was not the sort of "citizen" envisioned by those who signed the
Declaration of Independence in 1776 or who ratified the Constitution in
1787. On the contrary, the framers of our republic understood that the
"life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" promised in the Declaration were
not and are not simple commodities to be priced at the market, nor are the
triad of political ideals proclaimed in the French revolution: "liberty,
equality, fraternity." Furthermore,
they did not conceive of the human being as a mere preference bundle,
malleable into a shape desired by marketing geniuses. Instead, they affirmed
that each infant and child deserved the care, nurture and companionship that
might engender lifelong sense of compassion and of justice. And they
believed that each individual is capable at birth of being educated to a
condition of knowledge and critical intelligence sufficient to assume the
personal responsibility of conducting one's own life, and the civic
responsibility of participating in the governance of a free and democratic
We residents of "America, Inc." have drifted far from these ideals, and, as
obedient consumers, we may be ill-equipped to reclaim them. Great ideas and
principles do not lend themselves to the vivid images of the salesman. These
political ideals are not captured by slogans extracted from focus groups,
and they are often far removed from the "preference maps" of the economist.
As we become more accustomed to images and slogans and more estranged from
ideas and principles, the philosophical foundations of our republic decay
and the content is drained from our civic covenants. The resulting
detachment of theory and practice is alarming. "Equal justice under law" is
carved over the entrance of the Supreme Court, within which sit five
seditious political hacks who dispense unequal "justice." The words, "with
liberty and justice for all" are uttered daily in schools and at public
occasions by a citizenry that takes no notice and does not protest as those
liberties and that justice are taken away under the excuse of "national
emergency." "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people" is
mocked in a stolen election, following which the electorate is urged by the
illegitimate "winners" ( apparently successfully) to "get over it."
The road back to authentic democracy will be difficult, for the oligarchs
will not willingly surrender their ill-gotten power and privilege. The means
to that restoration are familiar enough: a reintroduction of civic education
("Civics" and History), both formal and informal (i.e., through the public
media). The media conglomerations must be broken up, and the "Fairness
Doctrine" restored, so that a variety of political opinions might be heard,
and a broad range of political issues discussed. Today, nothing remains of
the alleged "public ownership" of the broadcast spectrum save a pleasant
fiction. Finally, thoroughgoing campaign reform must be enacted . (See "A
Bribe by Any Other Name"). Much more can be said about the means
to this "restoration" of democracy and citizens, but that will have to await
In sum, there are, I submit, two overarching questions that must be put to
all American citizens, but most directly to the media and the oligarchs:
Are you bringing about the kind of country that you would wish for
yourselves, your children and your posterity to live in?
If not, then what are you willing to do to prevent it?
These questions must be asked, again and again, until at long last we face
the implications of what we are doing to ourselves and to our republic.
Copyright 2002, 2003 by Ernest Partridge