Citizen or Consumer

February 2021

“The difference between hope and despair…a different way of telling stories from the same facts”, Alain de Botton.

When did we become consumers and not citizens? “An educated consumer is our best customer”. That was the tag line of a clothing retailer not too many years ago. Since then, they went bankrupt. One wonders if it was because they couldn’t find enough of their best customers. Does that say something about our education system?

How many times have we heard that we need to get rid of “career” politicians? We need businessmen running the country! Someone who knows how to turn a profit and sell his wares.

The above two thoughts highlight a difficulty in our relationships with fellow citizens.

Nothing in our Declaration of Independence or Constitution that forms our government hints at the underlying assumptions that many people hold today. It seems we have come a long way, baby: from proclaiming self-evident truths and forming more perfect unions to conspicuous consumption of government wares. If this is our view of government, like demanding a cheaper floor mat to walk on, than yes, I understand the need for a businessman to run the store.

Every April we get the bill for all this and complain about how little we got for our money, and what we got was overpriced. Since our egos are hooked on the heroin-like words “freedom” and “individuality”, it is no wonder we expect perfection from the wait staff. Talk of unity and brotherhood is all well and good, but we paid good money for the better seats in this drama!

Once we start putting monetary value on things, accountants run wild. How much do I have to pay for the good health of my neighbor? Is that drinking water cost effective? Why should I pay for someone’s non-work? I earned my money by myself! The government is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem. That last statement was spoken by none other than Ronald Reagan.

All this points to how people frame their relationship with governments. Those relations, as we see today, generate polarizations and disputes. However, rarely is there only one cause for any problem. In addition, the many causes interact in unanticipated ways. The economy moved from agricultural to industrial and is now based on world-wide services. Service is paramount. Technology, transportation, communications, education, culture, experience (let’s call it our environment) have all contributed to a fundamental reframing of our relations with others. We are, like it or not, hitchhikers on a vehicle we may not fully understand.

Is this a condemnation or fault of a “liberal” agenda as “conservatives” say? Have we become the “nanny” state? Is that the underlying cause? I don’t think so. It is hard to blame anyone trying to help their neighbor. Yes, we all want the same things out of life. How we do this is the problem. How that story is presented, however, makes all the difference

So, the question remains, how did we end up in different corners of a boxing ring? How do we fix this? If you broke your arm, the medical procedure to fix it is simple. If you have diabetes, the path to fixing it is much more complex as in the late stages it affects all organs. Are we, as a country, and the world civilization at large, at a similar point? The assumption that one thing is broken is mistaken.

The current pandemic glaringly makes obvious that there is only one of two choices to survive it. Either we must hide in a cave until it dies out, or we work together for our common survival. No individual can solve this problem alone. In geologic time, the pandemic is a flash in the pan. Global climate change is on a time scale 10 to 100 times longer but must be addressed in the same manner. In both cases, our changing environment is the operative term. This pandemic was caused by the changing environmental relationship between animals and humans. To survive and prosper, those changes must be recognized and addressed. Similarly, we need to know why we face the divisions and polarizations of today. Working together is really the only option.

Democracy relies on much more than what is written in the constitution. It tells us what to do, not how to do it. That document makes a lot of assumptions of behavior that may not exist anymore. The norms of behavior that have recently fallen by the wayside are obvious.

Can we just bring back common norms? Will that bring the nation together? As mentioned above there are many other environmental changes that are also involved. Slavery in this country ended, not because it failed as an economic system or because it was destructive to the country as a whole, but was a decision to respect other humans. Needless to say, the end was not accomplished easily. Today, the polarized groups that we long to bring together are similarly capable, or think they are, of an independent north and south existence. There is no impediment to “work together” other than the lack of will to do so. Modern technology (our environment) enables these groups to form bubbles of conformity which, in many ways, negates the need for a unified country “working together”. (Think of 50 states with 50 different voting procedures). This also applies to the rest of the world, just look at “competitive” countries. It is only the decision to act as one that is missing.

One is tempted to say we need a new religion. A common belief system. That is the base of many “norms” we subscribed to. Religion, like mythology and tradition, rely on those common beliefs to hold people together with a common story; what is popularly described as the arch of history. A common story, I believe, is essential for any society to survive as one. 

Our constitution proclaims that we act “under God”. Which, to me, means we understand that we are not Gods. We judge and rule, however imperfectly, as citizens. This is a very challenging task. It is, in fact, the essence of the American Experiment. Can the American Experiment provide a belief system, a common story, that convinces everyone to be a citizen? If so, getting back our norms of behavior might be the first step out of the boxing ring. And those norms must be demonstrated honestly by everyone, not the least of which are our politicians and leaders.

But beyond that we must acknowledge that our environment is an evolving dynamic. In short, it is much easier to be a consumer than a citizen (think of the difference between buying from Amazon and voting on issues). The fact that different polarized groups believe they can survive quite nicely and independently, must be addressed. That idea we can ignoring the concerns of polarized groups that we do not belong to must be rejected.

The title of this essay is Citizens or Consumers. At one time JFK asked not what the country can do for you (as a consumer) but what you can do for the country (as a citizen). A prophetic insight to today’s world. There is no secret formula to change one for the other, but the advertiser was on to something. An educated citizen is our best customer; education in the broadest sense of the word. Education that brings forth a dialogue to bridge the gap between being a citizen and being a consumer. It must answer the question of why we need to be citizens. Our environment makes it easy to be a consumer, and yet we long to be a citizen.

A final word. In Steven Levitsky (2018) book, How Democracies Fail, he writes how we should go forward: non- violent protest but also work to strengthen institutions and norms. Responses should not be in kind but to build coalitions of divergent views. De-power extremists and broaden your base.

“Most controversies begin with a discussion of principles; but soon degenerate into episodical, verbal or personal cavils. Too much of this is seen in these pamphlets, and, as usual, those whose dogmas are the most unintelligible are the most angry.” Thomas Jefferson, 1818

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