Are You A Consumer?

Over the course of my lifetime, it seems that consumer has become the most common word used to refer to individual members of our society. On television, in newspapers, and on the radio, we regularly hear stories about what consumers are doing and thinking. We are constantly being updated on how consumers are reacting to the market. Whether it’s that gasoline has gotten too expensive, or that the latest iProduct is in high demand, the habits and patterns of consumers are of great concern to the established media companies.

This morning at breakfast, I was reading an article in the newspaper about how the Affordable Care Act is negatively impacting some individuals – especially those who buy their own insurance, rather than receiving it through an employer. The content of the article was interesting, but what struck me the most was the way the problem was framed. Rather than approaching the story from a public policy angle, the article mainly focused on the reaction of consumers of health care goods and services. The crux of the article was whether some individuals should be required to buy a product they might not want or need so that other individuals could have affordable access to health care products they need desperately but might not be able to afford under the old regime.

This is the way they presented the dilemma: as a story of tension between healthier consumers and less healthy consumers, fighting to get the best deal for their health care dollars. But could there be another way of thinking about health care, and about our society as a whole? Is there a framework that would allow us to consider these questions in a way that assumed connection, caring and community between individuals, rather than the zero-sum competition of the market?

One framework that immediately occurred to me was that of citizenship. I have the impression (my older readers can tell me if I’m mistaken) that fifty years ago the word citizen was much more common in our public discourse, and that the word consumer much less common. How would our public conversation – not to mention public policy – be different if framed in terms of citizenship, rather than consumption?

The idea of citizenship could offer a positive antidote to the consumeristic worldview. While consumers have only unmet desires and (hopefully) means to pay for it, citizens have rights, responsibilities and a role within a larger community. What might change if we thought in terms of rights and responsibilities, rather than in terms of consumer desire and spending? In short, what would be the effect of a worldview that is primarily civic rather than hedonistic?

Such a renewed conception of citizenship could yield enormous benefits for our society. A nation that conceives of itself primarily as a union of citizens, rather than consumers, would be a much healthier, functional, and more prosperous one. Yet, there are definitely problems that this worldview based in citizenship would fail to address – in particular, our culture’s unbalanced focus on the individual. Even as a nation of citizens, it would still be easy for us to think in terms of my personal rights and my personal responsibilities. We would no longer be hedonists, perhaps, but we would still be individualists.

Rather than stumbling into single-serving citizenship, what if we learned to be a body together? In the New Testament, Paul talks about how those who live in God’s love are knit together as a single organism. No longer a mere collection of individuals, we discover that we are all deeply connected; that, in a certain sense, we are not separate at all. When one of us is happy, we rejoice together; when one of us is in pain, we feel it as a community. This experience of being a body together takes us far beyond the duties of citizenship. Deeper than individual rights and responsibilities, we are called to surrender our prerogatives and take on the burdens of others – not because we have to, but out of love.

What would it look like to consider the issues of our day with this mindset? How would we address one another in our conversations around affordable health care, military spending, gay marriage and genetic engineering? How would our whole way of living as members of the human family be changed by this awareness of ourselves as an interconnected society, a community of communities, whose health and prosperity depend deeply on one another?