Thursday, October 24, 2013

When Did We Start Being Viewed as Consumers Rather Than As Citizens?

When reading the President's remarks from the other day about the problems with, I was somewhat discomfited by the concept of "president as corporate salesman" that pervaded the speech. The most glaring example of this is the line "....because consumers want to buy this product and insurance companies want to sell it to you."

The Affordable Care Act, by design, accepts the conservative (neoliberal) notion of health insurance as a market good. We (unless we are very poor, disabled, or elderly) are supposed to "choose" private insurance from the marketplace. When the state views its residents as "consumers," it will tell them to make a purchase. When the state views its residents as "citizens," it seeks to provide the universal goods and services needed for a healthy and educated body politic, for the universal attainment of positive liberty.

"Choice" has its role in some aspects of the economy. I've discussed this elsewhere.  However, if we say, as liberals do when talking about education and health care, that "everyone deserves the best quality, then we are implicitly arguing for universal provision as against choice, especially in those cases where "choice" only means "you get only what you can afford, not what you need.” “Choice” as a concept makes sense when there are qualitative differences, particularly qualitative differences at each price level. When “shopping” for health insurance plans, the questions are “how much do they cover” and “how much do they cost.” The concerns are quantitative. One does not ask if a health insurance plan is yellow or blue, sweet or spicy, funny or serious. One can say those about clothing, about food, or about entertainment, where “choice” is a matter of taste, not just price.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute has an excellent piece up today called "What Kind of Problem is the ACA Rollout for Liberalism?" Konczal argues,
Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism.
It's worth reading in full. 
One of the key aims of the neoliberal project is to change the individual's relationship with the state to that of a consumer, rather than that of a citizen.

This tension between the individual as citizen and individual as consumer made me ask a question: When did the emphasis on the consumer become greater than the emphasis on the citizen?

Out of curiosity, I turned to the Google Books Ngram Viewer and tracked the relative frequency of the words "consumer" and "citizen" in the corpus of the English language over the past two centuries. I found the results rather revealing.

From 1800 to the late 1890s, the word "consumer" was comparatively infrequent. It then experienced its first acceleration between (roughly) 1896 and 1920. For most of this time, however, the word "citizen" was becoming more frequent as well.

The word "citizen" experienced a download trend between 1919 and 1931. This largely coincides with the materialism of the "Roaring Twenties."

The word "consumer" rose sharply throughout the 1930s, the Great Depression. The word "citizen" rebounded slightly in the 1930s from its downward spin in the prior decade.

In the decade after World War II, with the beginnings of the era of mass consumerism, "consumer" continued to rise, and "citizen" began to fall again. "Consumer" passed "citizen" in 1957.

From 1966 to 1980, the word "consumer" saw a sharp increase. This might be a result of the rise of the "consumer protection" movement a la Ralph Nader. But it is also likely a result of the increase in consumerism . It seems fitting, in a way, to see that Reagan was elected in the year of peak "consumer."

From 1970 to 1988, the word "citizen" saw a quick decline. Trough "citizen" occurred in 1988, the end of the Reagan presidency.

I think that the chart serves as a great inspiration for a longer think piece on the relationship between the individual as consumer and individual as citizen. Maybe I'll write it someday.

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