Are we consumers or citizens?

By Rob Schofield

One of the healthiest political developments of the past few decades has been the rise of the consumer movement.

Americans champion the rights of consumers because we know that an informed citizenry is essential to produce balance and honest competition in our modern, capitalist economy.

Many of us have also become incredibly sophisticated consumers in our own right because we want to inform and empower ourselves and our neighbors.

Like many other political and cultural phenomena, however, the consumer movement has a dark side.

As the movement has spread and adapted during the last few decades, it has come to play a large and growing role in some areas in which it is less beneficial – most notably in the way in which citizens relate to government.

From social security to transportation to public schools, many Americans seem increasingly bent upon viewing essential government services as commodities, and government itself as just another giant corporation.

In the same passive-aggressive way that we relate to Wal-Mart and other superstores, many Americans demand of their government only that it produce ever-better schools, roads and retirement at ever-cheaper prices.

In the long run, this “what’s in it for me?” vision of government as a mega-version of the suburban box store is not sustainable.

Americans need vibrant and healthy government precisely because the private-sector model cannot — and is not designed to — meet all the needs of successful society.

While the free market is the greatest engine yet devised for building wealth, it is also an imperfect and heartless system with many “losers” as well as “winners.”

We need strong public institutions that help address the imperfections of the market.

Sometimes this will mean that each of us must sacrifice a little bit in the short term for the benefit of the longer-term common good.

As President Kennedy put it so succinctly, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

This is not to say that government doesn’t have a lot to learn from the private sector. Both for-profits and nonprofits can teach government much about innovation and efficiency.

Ultimately, however, if we Americans are going to regain the sense of our nation as a commonwealth, it is essential that we remember the difference between being a good consumer and a good citizen.

Rob Schofield is director of research and public policy at N.C. PolicyWatch, a program of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which also publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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