One of the recurring themes in Sunstein’s book is on the conflict between consumer sovereignty and political sovereignty. The roles of citizen and consumer are different, and we each play both. This post explores this idea a little bit.

This book is really good. I wish the chapters were shorter, but the division into sections is convenient for the sake of speed reading. I will occasionally skip ahead when I’m not as interested in something.

That’s the beauty of nonfiction, I guess. No spoilers!

Consumers vs. Citizens

One of the recurring themes is the conflict between consumer sovereignty and political sovereignty. The roles of citizen and consumer are different, and we each play both roles at different times. “Citizens do not think and act as consumers. Most citizens have no difficulty in distinguishing between the two roles.”

People aspire to different goals in their roles as citizens and as consumers. In the role of citizen, people typically act more altruistic than they do as consumers—when they usually have no concern for others. “No one should doubt that social norms sometimes press people, in their capacity as citizens, in the direction of a concern for others.”

The consumerization of citizenship

Consumers are not citizens, and it is a large error to conflate the two.

I have been thinking about this idea for a while. The consumerization of the democratic process is more visible the more you look.

One of the salient examples is in the presidential debates, which are made for entertainment rather than information. Candidates are trying to produce soundbites or recite prepared lines before being interrupted (by another candidate, the moderator, or the audience).

The debate between Biden and Sanders in March, without an audience, was so out of the ordinary for this reason; yes, both were still trying to get soundbites, but there was no audience to impress. There was no applause to break up scripted speeches.

It’s clear that the presidential debates are made for the democratic consumer, and not the democratic citizen. They do not serve to inform, but instead to entertain.

Democracy has to adapt to the increasing consumerism that, as Sunstein writes, is being caused by the internet. We ought to be seeking “a high quality communications market,” and to think about what our nation should do collectively.

Sunstein brings this concept back later, in his discussion of the Citizens United case. “In many of the debates over campaign expenditures and contributions, the political process itself is being treated as a kind of market in which citizens are seen as consumers, expressing their will not only through votes and statements but also through money.”

On regulation

The question is not whether we will have regulation; it is what kind of regulation we will have.

Regulation of social media is inevitable. Regulation of other tech companies is, too. The question, which the antitrust hearing a few weeks ago helped inform, is what governments are most concerned about.

Blanket opposition to regulation is, at best, uninformed. Broadcasters complaining about regulation when they only exist because of it.

When we are discussing possible approaches to the internet or other new communications technologies … we should never suggest that one route involves government regulation and another does not. Statements of this kind produce confusion about what we are now doing and about our real oppositions.

And the confusion is far from innocuous. It puts those who are asking how to improve the operation of the speech market at a serious disadvantage.

From the chapter - “Regulation: A Plea.”