Great Deals can be Costly for Democracy, Reich Argues at Forum

September 7, 2007
Robert O'Neill

In its relentless pursuit of a good deal, shoppers are elbowing citizens out of the public arena, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich warned Thursday evening during the inaugural Kennedy School Forum of the academic year.

The last three decades have seen the emergence of a upercharged capitalism, fueled by open markets and cutthroat competitiveness, said Reich, professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and author of the recently published “Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life.”

Now that “supercapitalism” is overwhelming government with lobbyists and money, and citizens are being dazzled by the promise of previously unimaginable riches and consumer choices.

“Are we just consumers? Or are we also participants and citizens?” asked Reich, who left the Kennedy School faculty to head up the Labor Department in the first Clinton administration.

Indeed consumerism has become so pervasive that we now approach much of our civic life as shoppers or investors, Reich charged.

When we do not like government, our shoppers’ instincts tell us to look elsewhere for a better deal, abandoning our democratic institutions rather than working to improve them.

“Because we’re out of the practice of citizenship we’re almost at the point where we don’t know what it means to be a citizen,” Reich said.

We look to corporations for more responsible citizenship, yet often abandon those companies whose social commitment prevents them from remaining competitive.

“Study after study after study shows that consumers do like socially responsible products but they’re not willing to pay one penny more for them,” Reich said.

Expecting less of corporations and asking more of ourselves as citizens is the beginning of a solution, Reich suggested.

“As long as a company is obeying the law why should we expect any more?” he asked. “Setting the rules of the game is not the responsibility of companies; it’s the responsibility of citizens in a democracy.”

To recultivate our habits as citizens, Reich argued, we will have to temper our habits as shoppers.

“Every time you are tempted to just get up and leave because you don’t like something, exercising your shopping habits, just stop for a moment … and ask if there is an engagement, a participation alternative that could help you and help an institution cultivate the habits of citizenship,” he said. “It starts at home.”

To watch a video of the event, visit the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum archive.

Photo by Kris Snibbe, Harvard News Office

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