Lawrence B. Glickman

 

On his book Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America

Cover Interview of October 26, 2009

A close-up

This morning, October 1, 2009, I picked up the New York Times to notice a full-page ad on the back of the news section.  It was prepared and paid for by “The Center for Consumer Freedom.”  The group, going by the motto of “Promoting Personal Freedom and Protecting Consumer Choice,” opposes taxes being considered by New York City and elsewhere on soda and junk foods.  The ad begins, “Are you too stupid…to make good personal decisions about foods and beverages.”  Arguing against the “campaign to demonize soda” the advertisement blasts “food cops and politicians” for “attacking food and soda choices they don’t like.”  Another of their ads warns about “Big Brother” in the “Big Apple.”  The group’s print ads (which can be seen here) provide a present-day example of the language of what I call “conservative populism,” whose origins I trace in my book.

The final chapter of Buying Power examines the battle for, and ultimate defeat of, a Consumer Protection Agency (CPA), a cabinet-level department, which came tantalizingly close to becoming a reality several times in the 1970s.  The CPA was defeated by a powerful lobby of various business organizations, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  But, in the end, the bill was, as the Wall Street Journal observed in 1978, “killed by words,” that is by the language of conservative populism that was invented by opponents of consumer protection and still lives on.

Beginning in the 1960s, this lobby successfully popularized the idea that consumer protection was a form of government coercion sufficiently frightening that it was best understood as “Orwellian.”  This, I argue, was the opening wedge in what became a rhetoric of describing the broader liberal project as one that promoted unfreedom.

The specifics have changed in the last forty years, but the fundamental accusation has not.  Currently, the same criticism is being used against President Obama’s proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  (I outline the argument that consumer protection is an important element of modern liberalism in a brief piece titled Consumer Protection Redux.)