“Consumerism” by Arthur Shenfield – Imprimis, September 1972

A series of short posts summarizing my thoughts as I work my way through the archives of the Imprimis newsletter from Hillsdale college.

The target of this article is the consumerist or “champion of the consumer”.

“The so-called consumerist movement is a movement of self-appointed friends of the consumer whose activities, if they were successful, would destroy him.”

The brunt of the attack focuses on the activities of Ralph Nader. He attributes the source of Mr. Nader’s popularity to a few points, I will cite two here.

  • Citizens think of others as fools (as consumers) in need of protection by the government. I loved this quote.”The grim joke is that while Mr. Nader tells the people that they are fools as consumers (for that is his real message, though he does not put it that way), he assures them that they are not fools as voters with the power to implement his legislative proposals. Yet all experience shows that most people are much wiser as consumers than as voters.”
  • The myth that corporations hold great power.

In regards to the latter point I agree that the hostility towards corporations is quite irrational at times. However, I do disagree somewhat. A number of large (usually very large) corporations presently exercise great power through political donations and lobbyists. Taking agriculture as an example (and I think some of this may be true of the telecom industry) there are many laws which are backed by large corporations but actually stifle competition by making it impossible for small producers to operate (see Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front).

Shenfield goes on to document the methods of the consumerist.

  • The establishment of new, better and stricter standards of quality, safety, fitness etc.
  • The regulation of industry.
  • The appointment of public interest representatives on the boards of large corporations.

He ends strong with the following quote.

“The consumerist movement is a typical populist movement. Its roots are ignorance and discontent. There will always be ignorance and there will always be discontent. Therefore there will always be populist movements. But like the others the consumerist movement will have its day and fade away. We shall not hear much of Mr. Nader in a few years’ time.”

How I wish that had been true. Some of the research I did while reading this article turned up what looks to be an interesting podcast from Sam Pelztman of Econotalk.


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