CHAPTER FIVE

are promoting or compromising our own highest aspirations. More particularly I make two suggestions, designed to undermine from a new direction the idea that consumer sovereignty is the appropriate goal for communications policy.

The first is that people's preferences do not come from nature or from the sky. They are a product, at least in part, of social circumstances, including existing institutions, available options, social influences, and past choices. Prominent among the circumstances that create preferences are markets themselves. "Free marketeers have little to cheer about if all they can claim is that the market is efficient at filling desires that the market itself creates." Unrestricted consumer choices are important, sometimes very important. But they do not exhaust the idea of freedom, and they should not be equated with it.

The second point has to do with the fact that in their capacity as citizens, people often seek policies and goals that diverge from the choices they make in their capacity as consumers. If citizens seek to do this, there is no legitimate objection from the standpoint of freedom-at least if citizens are not disfavoring any particular point of view or otherwise violating rights. Often citizens attempt to promote their highest aspirations through democratic institutions. If the result is to produce a communications market that is different from what individual consumers would seek-if as citizens we produce a market, for example, that promotes exposure to serious issues and a range of shared experiences-freedom will be promoted, not undermined.

The two points are best taken together. Citizens are often aware that they are subject to multiple influences and that their private choices, under a system oflimitless options, may lead in unfortunate directions, both for them as individuals and for society at large. They might believe, for example, that

120

CITIZENS

their own choices, with respect to television and the Internet, do not entirely promote their own well-being, or that of society as a whole. They might attempt to restructure alternatives and institutions so as to improve the situation.

At the same time, I will suggest that even insofar as we are consumers, new purchasing opportunities, made ever more available through the Internet, are far less wonderful than we like to think. The reason is that these opportunities are accelerating the "consumption treadmill," in which we buy more and better goods, not because they make us happier or better off, but because they help us keep us with others. As citizens, we might well seek to slow down this treadmill, so as to ensure that social resources are devoted, not to keeping up with one another, but to goods and services that really improve our lives.

Choices and Circumstances: The Formation and Deformation of Preferences

Many people seem to think that freedom consists in respect for consumption choices, whatever their origins and content. Indeed, this thought appears to underlie enthusiasm for the principle of consumer sovereignty itself. On this view, the central goal of a well-functioning system of free expression is to ensure unrestricted choice. A similar conception of freedom underlies many of the celebrations of emerging communications markets.

It is obvious that a free society is generally respectful of people's choices. But freedom imposes certain preconditions, ensuring not just respect for choices and the satisfaction of preferences, whatever they happen to be, but also the free formation of desires and beliefs. Most preferences and beliefs

121