Friday, April 22, 2011

Citizens or Consumers?

Writing about health care reform, Paul Krugman poses a very important question: "How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as 'consumers'?" It's a good question. Taking the time to read Krugman's article is well worth the few minutes in order to better understand some of the changes being suggested by Republicans. Medicare is at the heart of the matter and it has a profound way of shaping our next (current?) election cycle. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly put together a video stressing the impact of such a move away from Medicare as we know it to a voucher system that will somehow work with private insurance.



But stepping back from some of the political positioning of the Democrats and Republicans, how does language of the market shape our democracy? Lizabeth Cohen studied 20th Century America and classified it as a "Consumers' Republic." When did we shift our thinking to apply the consumer model to everything?

 
The book that really made me think about the use of language and how we think about citizens was Creating Citizen-Consumers: Changing Publics and Changing Public Services. It made concrete what I was thinking at the time. I felt--and feel--strongly that we're transforming the role and relationship of government with citizens. But more than that, we're changing the ways that citizens think of themselves, how they act and engage in the world. If we wholehearted adopt market language, what changes occur? Are we more than we buy? One of the challenges we face in the United States is the dramatic shift away from active citizenship to a model that makes us more like Amazon. I love the ease and ability of order books or (nearly) anything else on their website, but when we make government replicate that model we radically alter institutions.

But rather than talk about abstract "government," we can see how a consumer model changes many other institutions as well. Cooperative Extension is everywhere. But in recent decades and years, there has been a strong push to replicate the Amazon (or insert some other amazing one-click shopping type of website here). Where are the relationships between Extension educators and community members? Norman Rockwell's depiction of the County Agent has been replaced by a digitized button.

This..
...or this?
Fundamentally, we must ask: What kind of people do we want to be? The challenge is that we must also ask what kind of people we want to be, together. Market language and thinking gives each individual a "vote" but only to the degree that their decision-making based on purchases turns citizens into an aggregate that does little to recognize the human person and his or her ability to be a relational being. But if we embrace this notion that we're simply consumers, we are little more than data. I don't want to be data. I am a citizen.