Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- October 7, 2003

Consumer or Citizen?

Ernest Partridge 

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. 

Edwin Markham
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. 

Thomas Jefferson

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 consumers?

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 and wit: 

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 profiling."

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 Civic Friendship")

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 finance politicians. 

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 society.

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 another essay.

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