Published on October 22nd, 20120
Chris Ladd: Customers or Citizens?
When I go to Home Depot, I buy what I want and leave. I don’t speculate about which of my purchases might be the most valuable for the store. I don’t help restock the shelves. I don’t offer them advice on hiring decisions or product placement. My relationship to Home Depot is very simple. I am a customer. They offer me valuable things and I buy them if I want to.
A focus on the consumer may do some good things for the economy, but representative government cannot function on those terms. Our style of democracy is built on a dense network of voluntary organizations that channel the popular will into policy. Without intense personal involvement our political system falters. As consumer values expand into our wider culture, we may find that our choices place our democracy in jeopardy.
Consumerism assumes that the best economic outcomes rise from individual buyers making choices independent of any external concerns. Consumerism is clean, uncomplicated, and delivers a continuously improving standard of living to a very large number of people while delivering remarkable wealth to an ambitious and fortunate few. Reasonably regulated and confined to a purely commercial sphere, it can bring great rewards.
The damage comes when that mode of thinking oozes out across the culture and shapes the way we treat all of our relationships. Some institutions, like families, schools, and community groups, only function effectively when the rights and duties of the relationship flow in both directions. Religion becomes particularly obnoxious under the influence of consumer values. A church built to deliver a tasty product in return for my contributions quickly becomes a force for narcissism.
Both right and left have contributed to our slide toward consumer government. The liberal drive for a central authority that solves every problem and dries every tear has crowded out private problem solving. It has weakened our sense of ownership of the challenges in our own communities, spreading cynicism and passivity.
The right, particularly in recent years, has worked aggressively to destroy any sense of public obligations. The acid of radical individualism is eating away at the bonds that tie us together in wider communities. By attacking the very notion of a public existence they twist duty into oppression and community into communism. This hyper-selfish vision threatens to shrink the scope of our public lives to the size of the couch on which we watch television or surf the Internet.
Consumerism is the casual sex of political life and representative government withers under its influence. If my government is just another service provider, why would I waste precious time participating in politics? As we come to see government purely as a vendor we lose sight of our role as owners. The more we shed our duties toward government, the more we shed our stake. No one sends their children to fight and die for Home Depot. It is our personal ownership of our representative government that gives our society its power.
It can seem pointless at times for one person to resist the pull of massive, global trends, but in an interconnected world the smallest choices can have surprising echoes. Consumer values have easily spilled over from economics into religion, family, and our other private institutions, but that road can run both ways.
There is a hardware store about six blocks from my house. I often see the owner at school events. The place generally costs more, but I love the fact that I can stop there on the way home from the train to pick up a few things and get advice on projects. I have a relationship with that store which extends beyond vendor and consumer. The same could be said for the church down at the corner and the coffee shop across from the station.
Not everyone is going quietly into a world of passive consumerism. Whenever we can we invest time in our churches, schools, political parties, and other groups. We may have disagreements with each of them, but our involvement is more important than their strict conformity to our needs. We pay a little more in a mostly symbolic effort to preserve something more important.
Authentic conservatism is based on a respect for traditional institutions and the recognition that there are no rights without duties. The choices we make in the small corners of our lives give energy to larger trends. By remembering our duties to each other in all of life’s interactions we turn every day into Election Day, living our lives as engaged citizens, not just consumers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years.