Subjects → citizens → customers

One of the great revolutions of the American experiment was the idea that Americans were not subjects of a monarch, but rather citizens of a shared social contract– government by consent of the governed.  Alas, for many Republicans, it would seem the next step is for us to evolve from citizens to consumers.  In taking a look at the education voucher proposal here in North Carolina, NC PolicyWatch’s Rob Schofield has a great take on the insidious negative effects of viewing citizens not as such, but primarily as consumers:

Sadly, Jones’ position roughly summarizes a core belief of the state’s modern, Tea Partying right-wing: that citizens have a divine right to relate to their government as they relate to a big box store.

This is not an exaggeration or a parody. Governor McCrory has made this idea one of the centerpieces of his new administration with his repeated references to treating North Carolinians as “customers.”

In the modern conservative worldview, all human relationships are driven by the interactions of the marketplace. Many of these ideologues have genuinely come to believe that humans have been commanded by the Almighty to pursue their own self-interest in virtually all matters of economic and social interaction and that when they do, the “invisible hand” will somehow lead us all to the best possible (or, at least, the most just) societal result.

Hence the notion that North Carolina’s education ills can be cured by giving parents the kinds of “choices” afforded to “customers” and forcing schools to compete for their “business.” It’s really a quite remarkable and coldly Darwinian argument – especially coming as it does from a group that so frequently espouses a full-throated conservative Christianity…

And when citizens are treated like “customers” rather than owner/stakeholders, a subtle but important attitude shift is abetted. Rather than caring for their entire community as a whole, inhabitants are encouraged to worry about themselves, treat their neighbors as competitors and threats and confine their communal instincts to private charity.

Does this explain all of Milwaukee’s [they have a famous school voucher program of questionable efficacy] racial divides or economic blight? No, of course not; but it does shine an important window on the struggles of this once-thriving city. And, sadly, unless a change in course is effected soon, this attitude shift could soon come to afflict North Carolina on a mass scale as well.

This is why so many caring and thoughtful people are so desperately worried about the introduction of school vouchers in North Carolina. It’s not the immediate demise of public education they worry about; they know that public schools will cobble together a way to survive in the near term (just as they have muddled along through the budget cuts of recent years).

What worries these advocates and observers most is that vouchers will expedite the ongoing demise of citizenship and the social contract that once bound North Carolinians together in a united society. And sadly, judging by the attitudes and rhetoric of voucher supporters, this is a well-founded concern.

That’s ultimately a sharper point than I’d put on it (I don’t think civic virtue can be quite so easily eliminated), but I think Schofield is indeed right that viewing citizens primarily as consumers ultimately erodes a sense of community and social contract that is ultimately essential to a healthy democracy.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Subjects → citizens → customers

  1. Doxy says:

    When I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper on Thomas Hobbes and social contract theory. My basic premise was that the earliest “social contract” was language–that a society could only exist once there was a general agreement about the meaning of sounds/words. Politics could only come about once people could effectively communicate with one another–so the social contract that Hobbes envisioned required a much earlier, and more fundamental, foundation.

    I think about that often now–about how we can’t agree on what “facts” are anymore, and what that means for the social contract.

    I think the “social contract” is dead, Steve. I think television mortally wounded it, and the Internet has finished it off–with the help of the Supreme Court and funding from people like the Koch brothers and groups like ALEC. I guess that makes me sound like some wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, but it’s the truth as I see it.

    I hate to say it, but I’m coming to believe that those of us who continue to fight to protect a social contract are really just fooling ourselves. I’d love to find out I’m wrong…..

  2. Deborah Ferry says:

    Such a consumer society also rewards most those that consume the most (i.e., the rich). It also allows life necessary services, such as education and health care, to be treated like commodities to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. No, I don’t want to live in the United States of Walmart.

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