'Tis the season to be shopping. Which means there will be plenty of scolds out there taking us to task again for crass consumerism. But they will be wrong. All the cool stuff we'll buy this month, and in the other 11 months, too, still only accounts for barely 20% of our consumption dollars. The rest goes to buying the more boring but essential things: housing, transportation, insurance, health care, and food.
Here's the puzzle: We're great at fighting for the goodies we want — from large-screen televisions to this season's hottest toy. We know how to punish retailers and manufacturers that don't provide quality and value. But we're lousy at fighting effectively for what we really need — reliable insurance policies; affordable health care; safe, healthy food. The result? We usually get what we want, but rarely what we need. We're not too demanding and greedy, but the opposite.
History provides some clues to this puzzle. As historian T.H. Breen, author of the remarkable The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford University Press, 2004), tells it, Americans' first discovery of their collective hidden power paved the way for the War of Independence. Forget It's a Wonderful Life. Here's the ultimate inspiration for this holiday time.
The leaders of the British Parliament were pursuing a strategy of global expansion, but there were problems. Debt grew faster than anticipated, and they encountered irresistible pressure to increase revenue. Without much analysis, they decided to raise prices through new taxes.
Then something unprecedented happened. The injustice of these arbitrary new taxes awakened in ordinary American colonists (frequently chastised by the gentry for their love of fashionable goods) a profound sense of revulsion at the arrogance of their rulers. They joined forces and rebelled, refusing to buy the more expensive goods. The price increases were called the Stamp Act. And "no taxation without representation" became the battle cry that united consumers from Virginia to Vermont. Revenues fell sharply, the merchants and politicians never saw it coming, and the men scrambled frantically to devise a new plan.
Parliamentarians turned to Ben Franklin, widely known for his perspicacity (as well as a penchant for trendy clothes and elegant china). We once loved fashion more than anything, he explained, but now we're willing to give it up. What was at stake, he warned, was a total loss of respect and affection, and "all the commerce that depends upon that respect and affection." Within weeks, the price increases were withdrawn, though only for a time.
Back then, the conflict was over goods people considered necessities, such as cloth and tea. Today it's things such as health insurance, mortgages, and credit. Consider what's going down in the insurance business. There are hundreds of options to choose from in the marketplace, but few, if any, that heed our voices and earn our trust. That's why, according to a survey by Euro RSCG, the majority of us believe that "insurance companies will do everything possible to avoid paying claims." Forty-eight percent of those with health insurance experience problems with their plans — denial or delay of service being the most frequent. Despite the obvious failure of so many businesses to meet our needs, prices continue to increase. A large majority of us (66%) regard drug costs as "unreasonably high," and a large plurality blames this on corporate profit taking, not the cost of research. The only thing worse than having insurance is not having it. New census data shows that by 2003, high prices had left 45 million Americans without any health coverage, the most since the government started counting.
So far, we seem to be waiting for our politicians to set things right. In much the same way, the colonists once hoped local merchants would simply stop importing British goods, sparing them the more complex challenge of coordinating direct action, like the Boston Tea Party and, ultimately, the war.
The innocent pleasures of shopping this holiday season remind me of our "revolutionary politics of pursuing happiness" (as Breen puts it) that once put us on the path to freedom. I cannot help but wonder if and when our lack of voice and shattered trust will again awaken our revulsion and turn it into revolt. Instead of "no taxation without representation," our cry could be "no choice without voice." It says we're no longer seduced by a superficial array of choices. We once found the strength to confront the power of an empire. Can we do it again? Will we?
Shoshana Zuboff is the coauthor of The Support Economy (Viking, 2002). Join her online discussion.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.