Citizens Aren’t Consumers

Criticisms of capitalism and market economies–fair and unfair– are plentiful. I’ve noted before that–as with most debates about political and economic systems– reality is more complicated than either the defenders or critics seem to recognize.

This post is not going to wade into those waters–I’ll leave my (hopefully more nuanced) economic arguments for another day–but I am going to argue that America’s devotion to the operation of the market has had one unfortunate  cultural consequence: it has strengthened a widespread belief in the notion that citizens are customers, rather than shareholders, of government.

And the customer, no matter how unreasonable, is always right–or at the very least, entitled to significant deference.

I’ve noted this confusion between citizenship and market consumption before; an article about recent attacks on school boards by parents and political activists have reinforced my concerns.

During the school masking debates, an essay in the New York Times considered the roots of the hostile confrontations at school board meetings. One of the people quoted in that discussion referred to a “citizen consumer” concept , which he said was helping him “to better understand the open-the-schools crowd.” I was unfamiliar with the scholarship around that term, so I googled it.

According to one paper abstract posted on the Oxford Scholarship Online website

Americans spend far more time thinking about what to buy, and what not to buy, than they do about politics. Political leaders often make political claims while using consumer terminology, and political decisions resemble consumer decisions in surprising ways. Together, these forces help give rise to the consumer citizen: a person who depends on tools and techniques familiar from consumer life to make sense of politics. Understanding citizens as consumer citizens has implications for a broad array of topics related to public opinion and political behavior. More than a dozen new experiments make clear that appealing to the consumer citizen as consumer citizen can increase trust in government, improve attitudes toward taxes, and enhance political knowledge. Indeed, such appeals can even cause people to sign up for government-sponsored health insurance. However, the consumer citizen may also prefer candidates whose policies would explicitly undercut their own self-interest. Two concepts from consumer psychology—consumer fairness and operational transparency—are especially useful for understanding the consumer citizen. Although the rise of the consumer citizen may trouble democratic theorists, the lessons of the consumer citizen can be applied to a new approach to civic education, with the aim of enriching democracy and public life.

I definitely fall within that group of “democratic theorists” who believe that confusing consumerism with democratic participation is very troubling.

The people who have embraced this approach are people with something to sell: the political strategists and public relations gurus whose business is peddling political policies and candidates. Those of us who decry the identification of political choice with consumer marketing agree with an organization called “The Common Good Collective,” which describes the difference between the citizen and the consumer:

A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy, regardless of their legal status. It is one who chooses to create the life, the neighborhood, the world from their own gifts and the gifts of others. Many who have the full legal rights assigned by their country continue to wait for others to provide them with satisfaction and contribute little to democracy or the well-being of their community. At the same time, there are major contributors to community and democracy who do not enjoy the legal status of “citizenship.” Nevertheless, these people still] function as full participants in what is necessary for a democracy to work.

A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life. This act of surrender goes by many names: client, patient, student, audience, fan, shopper. All customers, not citizens. Consumerism is not about shopping, but about the transformation of citizens into consumers.

Citizenship is a hotly debated political subject. Look for ways to participate in this discussion by contacting elected officials and supporting grassroots organizations assisting refugees and undocumented neighbors. As you do, consider, how might I call everyone I meet into deeper participation in our community? How might I loosen the grip of consumer culture on my life, noting and offering “care” in ways that move beyond transaction?

One of the accusations frequently leveled at Trump–aka “the former guy”–was that he was entirely  transactional, always concerned with “What’s in it for me?” He was the choice of  voters who saw themselves as “consumers” entitled to demand a political “product.”  If that product benefitted them at the expense of less savvy or less empowered consumers, tough.

Consumers don’t worry about the common good. Citizens do.


  1. Thank you, Sheila, for highlighting the differences of customers versus consumers. Iʻve recently read an article that talked about how America has built up a culture around deferring to customers and the “customer is always right” concept, which has in turn created the current monster consumer mentality. Seems like there are way too many demanding customers behaving rudely ,and with an overweening sense of entitlement. Basically, they are acting like spoiled brats. Your observations are spot-on. We definitely need to bring “common courtesy” and the Golden Rule to the fore.

  2. Oops, I meant customers versus citizens… itʻs already been a long day 🙂

  3. Yes. I’ve written two books on the subject you adroitly discussed today. It’s always been the Republican mantra to “run government like a business”. Which, of course, begs the question: “So, if our government doesn’t turn a profit, is it bad?”

    Republicans are obliged to be transactional because that’s what they’re paid to do. Corporate/banking America gives not a single whit about the “citizen” – in the context of today’s blog. They care ONLY about the consumer and how much they can reap from those customers in profits. It’s how unregulated capitalism works. It’s why Republicans don’t want any regulations on their sponsors’ businesses. It’s also the root of Karl Marx’s prophecy about the future of unregulated capitalism.

    I get it that the “political product” is supposed to serve the individual voter’s wants, but that really only applies at the local level. The national government is responsible for the well being of not only the citizens, but the defense, foreign relations and national infrastructure as well as our defense. And Republicans who whine about big government say, “Where’s the profit in that?”

  4. Reminds me of another term that I hate …”stakeholders.” A lot of times when the expenditure of public funds is sought, those so advocating talk about the stakeholders, i.e. those who have a interest in the expenditure. But when it comes to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars, everyone should be considered a “stakeholder.” I hate it when K-12 advocates say that if you don’t have a child in public schools, you really shouldn’t have a say in public education issues, i.e. you’re not a stakeholder. No, 50% of my tax dollars go to K-12 education. I’m a stakeholder. Better yet, let’s drop the nonsensical term.

  5. Vernon writes, “It’s why Republicans don’t want any regulations on their sponsors’ businesses.”

    Who sponsors the Democrats? 😉

    By the way, I saw where Amazon workers formed their own union and won. Meanwhile, the head of the American Federation of Teachers was in Poland to lend her hand to drumming up business for the Military-Industrial Complex. What a great party apparatchik! LOL

    As an Ego on this planet, I identify with many subjects: citizen, consumer, and taxpayer are just a few. I am also a stakeholder.

  6. “A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life.”

    “A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy, regardless of their legal status.”

    My Citizens Energy Group monthly budget plan payment increased by $11.00 this month. For those not local; Citizens Energy Group is our monopoly utility providing gas and water. I wasn’t surprised because that payment has not increased in approximately 3 years; at the same time I connected this particular increase to Putin’s war in Ukraine and the coming gas shortages with increases in gas prices at the pump. If my $11.00 monthly will help Ukrainians even a little; I gladly pay the bill. I can afford the increases, being one little old lady who turns down my furnace at night, lights and TV off when not in use and do very little driving, but…my thoughts went to those who had problems paying the costs prior to the increases. I understand that the gas increases are adding to the soaring costs of everything we purchase because it all must be delivered to sites convenient for our consumption. My son must drive his truck from Indianapolis to Columbus, IN, and home again, daily. He and other working people are hit hard on all sides.

    But; the announcement of bird flu beginning with POSSIBLE shortages of eggs and chicken (which came first?) and the big jump in prices from last week are, in my estimation, price gouging. The price increase before the shortages begin which we have seen, and paid, time and time again in many past years.

    “Consumers don’t worry about the common good. Citizens do.”

    Where do my comments today place me; consumer or citizen?

  7. Sheila, you say:

    ‘{Trump] was the choice of voters who saw themselves as “consumers” entitled to demand a political “product.” If that product benefited them at the expense of less savvy or less empowered consumers, tough.’

    I think the conclusion of this is wrong. These people see politics–and life in general–as a zero-sum game. For someone to “win”, another must “lose.” Trump most definitely believes this, and has always acted accordingly. Compromise equates with loss to these people. So, the issue isn’t that it’s unfortunate that others _might_ lose while they get benefits via Trump, it’s _essential._ It’s a feature, not a bug. That the others _will_ lose is critical to their support.

  8. Similar issue is with education. Students are not clients/consumers and to claim so makes educators nothing more than retail clerks and not professionals. Society at large is the consumer, but I say again not the students and even more so not the parents. Reducing education to a market based provider damages educational institutions, students and most especially educators.

  9. I read an idiotic Op-Ed piece in the IndyStar yesterday and wondered where the author got his ideas. It now makes sense. If you can get a consumer oriented American to take action because they are “consumer” then maybe you can get them to vote against their own self (and the communities) interest.

    Here is that citizen consumer idea in a real life example:

  10. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address concerning reasonings behind the Massive amount of death and destruction of the civil War: “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

    Of the people, by the people, for the people! That can be confusing for many. Folks meditate on The taxes they have to pay, can they recoup that from the government?

    I suppose if you consider UBI,
    (Universal Basic Income) this is something that would strike a chord with many. In this government by the people, for the people, would this be a basic right? Would this be a consumerist viewpoint?

    Alexander Frazier Tytler, or, Alexis de Tocqueville, this quote has been atributed to both.

    “A democracy is always temporary in nature, it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

    “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of History has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual Faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From Liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness: From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage!”

    This is one of my favorite historical quotes, the reason being, it really is quite accurate if you reflect on the history here! The Rot always starts on the inside, the body politic (government) dies and the civilization quickly collapses to rot away. It is inevitable! Eventually, the cycle will cease, but that will probably be because of an Extinction event!

  11. I’m a Republican who has never liked the “run government like a business” saying. Government is clearly not a business. That doesn’t mean that some business principles can’t be applied in delivering government services. But thinking government should be run like a business? Well, that would be impossible.

  12. Yes, John, this is why the founders did not create a democracy. As an oligarchy that broke away from a monarchy/church rule, they certainly wanted those with the most gold to continue making the rules, but a democracy for the people could take away their gold.

    They protected their gold and their power.

    However, there was no central bank. If we spent a few weeks on this blog talking about where all the money was flowing into the colonies and who was financing the confederacy, we might get a better understanding of how the country was constructed (the rules, laws, order, etc.).

    Poor Vernon is choking on my question this morning… 😉

  13. Reflecting on 25+ years experience as a management consultant who worked with large businesses, it is clear that one root cause of the current mistrust of the federal government is that, in some key ways, it is not run like a business – some examples:

    – Lack of continuous strategic planning (see Afghan withdrawal, adapting for climate change, etc.)
    – Lack of accountability for results. Smart businesses continually check on their programs and determine whether to “start, stop, fix, or continue” based on effectiveness
    – Lack of focus on problems – “spray ($) and pray” instead of targeted (non-political) action

  14. Todd,

    I, along with many others, choke on everything you write. I read your stuff before breakfast. I learned the hard way.


    The egg came first. Chickens are birds – which are actually “advanced” dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and all other reptiles evolved the hard-shelled, amniotic egg, Thus birds – including chickens – lay eggs just like their ancient ancestors. So, when somebody tries to tell you that dinosaurs became extinct, remind them that their ancestors are everywhere and, just like their ancestors, they sport feathers.


    I love the history lesson based on the 200 year cycle. Yes, I think we are approaching the bondage thing again, but in a unique way: We, in the democratic republic of the United States, are becoming slaves to profit, profit that has resulted in the utter self-serving, self-indulgent, me-first group of citizens who have no idea what the Constitution says, never mind what it means. You know, like Todd’s view.

  15. Bottom line of Capitalism = Profit
    You cannot make a profit serving the poor and disadvantaged. When I was a mental health counselor for the state of SC, we were told to start thinking in terms of “consumers”, “stakeholders” “productivity”, etc. In serving the mentally ill, those terms lead to frustration and fraud. (If you are told your productivity MUST be at a certain level and your clients don’t show up for appoinments, etc., one learns to fudge numbers in order not to get fired.)
    IMO — Government exists to serve all people in their jurisdictions. Tax rates in this country are ridiculously low compared to countries like Denmark and Germany. Especially on the wealthy who have lawyers who help them avoid taxes all together. Because of our “consummerism” mentality, our country has the least favorable position on many life-enhancing services that make life pleasant and fulfilling for the vast majority – health care, family leave, child care, etc. But, hey, we have big shiney trucks and lots of fast food!!

  16. While I read here every day, and post here most days, the experience varies from time to time. This is one of those days when the experience was, eureka I’ve found it! Perhaps language is one of the lanes I am slow in, but catching up is exciting.

    “A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfying life.”

    “A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy, regardless of their legal status.”

    Bingo! Or, to update the expression, BAM!

    People more familiar with business will have a hard time with that transition. People who don’t like to pay anybody for any value received will also.

    Clarity. This wordplay clarifies that only in a democracy do we the people participate in government. That’s what Ukrainians are giving their lives for to give to their children.

  17. JoAnn:
    “but who or what laid the egg?”

    It’s turtles all the way down!!! LOL!!! 🙂

    Vern — I just don’t read Todd — why waste the time?

  18. JoAnn,

    Well, as amphibians transitioned to dry land from needing to lay their shell-less eggs in water, the amniotic membrane became a kind of sealant to water loss inside the egg itself. Then, the harder shells protected the entire interior from the physical “abuse” eggs might experience on dry land in nests. Nesting was always there beginning with fish, so it follows that amphibians and reptiles would retain that nesting “instinct” to lay their eggs. To answer your question directly: There was no “who” 300 million years ago. The “what” was a transition form of vertebrate that laid eggs on dry land and succeeded in passing along that adaptation to subsequent generations. Dinosaurs seemed to lay “leathery” shelled eggs; it wasn’t until true birds appear in the fossil record that hard-shelled, calcium-based eggs are seen.

    You’d have loved my classes. LOL. I was taught and mentored by the very best: Michael J. Novacek, Provost of Science at the American Museum of Natural History, Richard Etheridge, who defined the evolution of iguanas, Jason Lillegraven, paleontologist and curator at the University of Wyoming, and Jacque Gauthier, chair of the Vertebrate Paleontology at Yale and the author of the definitive work connecting birds and dinosaurs.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to give credit where it’s due. These guys were awesome.

  19. Where did this idea of ‘the customer is always right’ come from anyway? I have worked in the public from the time I was 16 working at McD’s to now being a nurse at age 53 and to be honest, I rarely have ever seen when the customer is truly ever right.

    I am with J. Smith Jones–this attitude has contributed to an entitled rudeness that only seems to be worsening.

    Thoughts–have we American’s bought into the the notion that anything gov’t touches sucks? Is that why we have accepted that our crumbling roads, bridges, infrastructure is acceptable and the norm? That our public schools are a financial drain instead of an asset? That are healthcare system where we pay more for less and where too large of the population does not have access because they work at jobs that don’t offer it? To capture the 2021/2022 catchphrase…It is what it is.

  20. Vern; interesting theory; a great ice breaker at any boring gathering. Here’s one for you regarding the bird theory and dinosaurs; my friend with two Masters Degrees in different areas of Social Work studied color psychology for one of them. Studies proved that goose eggs incubated under pink lights produced larger gonads than those incubated under blue lights. No idea if there is any value in this study or knowing the results but makes me question the human choices of pink for girls and blue for boys all these years. Could this have lasting psychological effects on either gender or be connected to the many LGBTQ issues we are facing today? Just askin’

  21. Todd,

    Has there ever been a true democratically formed democracy?

    If there was, it didn’t last very long! The dodo bird had a better chance of survival than a democracy, lol! And you see what happened to the dodo bird! Man’s heart is completely corrupted, very few actually will go that extra mile such as the Good Samaritan did. All governments are houses of tarot cards built a wobbly tables of lies and deceit.

    Instead of using good compassionate and empathetic governance, they read the tea leaves, they keep the citizenry off kilter! That way, the golden spigot will remain wide open for those who are privileged enough to drink from it.


    The chicken came first, then the chicken laid the figurative rotten egg! And, considering the chickens control over all governments, it’s been laying rotten eggs for millennia, 🤔.

    Vern, good morning! You keep hurling your oatmeal, you going to make yourself sick lol!

    By the way, I doubt if you needed any history lessons, you incorporate so many of those lessons in your books, almost like using your historical based parables to explain the back stories.

    Mark this, I think you’re going to see governments coalesce around a perceived solution concerning all of this constant turmoil, such has been going on for decades, in some cases centuries. Then, it’s all going to go down the authoritarian toilet!

    History doesn’t lie am I right? But what’s different about this point in history compared to all others? The connectivity concerning every square inch of territory no matter how remote it seems, will find the seeming problem, and, Collectively attempt to eradicate it! They can lay their problems at the feet of the Boogeyman which they Collectively Identified. All of this, even though they are just as Collectively Guilty as the Collectively Identified Boogeyman, because of their Warm Symbiotic Association with this Collectively Identified Boogeyman.

    See what I did there? Collectively equals the global Collective, and that equals a Hegemony! With that, there can be no place for that chosen Boogeyman to hide from those Hegemonic authorities!

    Terrifying times ahead, indeed!

  22. Well Vernon, once again you have hit the nail squarely. It seems that most often, when you comment, there is little or nothing more to add.

    I found both of your books at Amazon. They are on the way. I’ll receive them on Monday. I’m looking forward to reading both.

  23. This is too much for a response at this time. I’ll put it aside for a later date. But from what I have read above, I don’t believe there is much to be gained by exploring it. It may be yet another distinction without a difference. Or is it a difference without a distinction?

  24. Two quick points – first – Brava, Sheila. well stated.

    Second on how government could be “more business-like” even if not “consumer based”.

    Business has government to put their thumb on the scale to stabilize labor markets, financial markets, and the like. Government has self-interested parities and ideologues interfering. Plan for a pandemic? It isn’t here, so why bother? Repair our infrastructure? Nah, a tax break is more important. Collect taxes that are owed? No, “save money” by cutting IRS staff.

    My favorite “moderate Republican hero”, Chrsitie Todd Whitman – Governor Whitman promised to balance the budget and cut taxes. She did. It was easy. She depleted the pension fund. Of course, when the shortages came, she was long gone.

    And the crap and stupidity I’ve seen in business — don’t get me started. Let’s just say that ALMOST ALL (I refuse to use the universal) large bureaucracies are riddled with inefficiencies, bureaucrats protecting their personal positions, and other flaws — but they often work well enough.

    I have to agree with my friend Paul. Government shouldn’t be run like a business, but it could adopt some more business-like practices. Perhaps negotiating for the best deal on contracts, except when Congress says: Thou shall not!

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