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Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer

Author(s):Donohue, Kathleen G.
Reviewer(s):Gerber, Larry G.

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

Kathleen G. Donohue, Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xii + 326 pp. $45.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-7426-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Larry G. Gerber, Department of History, Auburn University.

Kathleen G. Donohue, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, has written an ambitious book exploring the evolution of modern American liberalism from 1870 to 1940 by concentrating on changing conceptions of consumption and consumers. Donohue is not the first historian to consider the ways in which the development of a consumer-oriented society transformed American liberalism, but her carefully focused reading of a large and diverse group of economic and social theorists sheds new light on the intellectual underpinnings of post-New Deal liberalism.

Donohue begins by describing the ?producer paradigm? that dominated American thinking about the political economy in the late nineteenth century. She observes that ?classical liberals? assumed that only those responsible for the production of wealth were entitled to enjoy its benefits and that consumption was at best an unfortunate necessity because it represented the destruction of wealth. Donohue points out that going all the way back to the Puritans, Americans had consistently viewed consumption as a vice, but that only with the development of classical economics in the nineteenth century did the producer come to be seen as the embodiment of all that was good. Late nineteenth- century radicals and socialists may have differed sharply with liberals about the desirability of capitalism, but they shared the belief that the producer, whether worker or entrepreneur, ought to be at the center of the political economy and that the interests of consumers and producers were, in many ways, incompatible. Theorists as diverse as William Graham Sumner, Henry George, Richard Ely, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the early Thorstein Veblen all adopted a producerist worldview that assumed an individual?s identity and worth derived from his or her role as a producer.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, according to Donohue, a number of influential writers began to challenge the negative view of consumption and consumers that had become so widespread. Even though intellectuals such as Simon Patten and Edward Bellamy continued to view production as the key element of the economy, they began to lay the foundation for a more positive view of consumption that divorced the right to consume from the individual?s role as a producer. The Progressive era subsequently proved to be a ?turning point? in the development of a consumerist perspective as Veblen and consumer advocates such as Florence Kelley began to associate the public interest with the interests of consumers and to undermine the positive connotations that had long been associated with the category of producer.

It was not until the final years of the Progressive era and the 1920s, however, that a new generation of social theorists, including Walter Lippmann, Walter Weyl, Stuart Chase, Robert Lynd, and Rexford Tugwell, completed the theoretical reconstruction of classical American liberalism by arguing that the nation?s political system should be organized around the consumer rather than the producer. Although the new consumer-oriented liberals offered a variety of prescriptions as to how government might most effectively intervene in the economy to safeguard the interests of the consuming public, they all assumed that a strictly market-based, producer-oriented, system no longer promoted the well being of society.

Such ideas, Donohue admits, had little impact on American politics until the Great Depression created a radically new political environment. Even at the outset of the New Deal, consumer-oriented liberals had to contend with advocates of a more traditional producer-oriented approach for influence within the Roosevelt administration. However, the failure of the NRA helped pave the way for the triumph of a consumerist approach. Ultimately ?consumerist left liberals? such as Tugwell, Chase, William Trufant Foster, and others who at one time worked within the Agricultural Adjustment Administration played a key role in making ?freedom from want? a central tenet of American thinking. They thus prepared the ground for the triumph of a Keynesian approach to the economy that was based on the premise that a consumption-oriented economy best served the public interest.

Freedom from Want is a well crafted example of traditional intellectual history. Donohue?s close reading of the works of a variety of economic and political theorists not only provides interesting new insights into the thought of the individuals she examines, but also allows her to construct a compelling narrative of the dramatic change that occurred over a span of half a century in liberal thinking about the role of consumption and consumers in the political economy. Her analysis effectively highlights the way in which the development of a consumer-oriented approach to the political economy undercut the potential appeal of socialism, which continued to place the producer/worker at the center of the political and economic universe.

However, Donohue?s history of ideas does have some self-imposed limitations. Although Donohue acknowledges the significance of the Great Depression, for most of her study she does little to relate the theoretical works she examines to actual changes in the American economy. It would, therefore, be useful to read Donohue?s book in conjunction with James Livingston?s Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (UNC Press, 1994), which examines many closely related issues while attempting to link the concerns of more traditional intellectual history to a sophisticated treatment of economic developments.

In addition, except for her discussion of the NRA and AAA, Donohue rarely makes any effort to connect her analysis of what intellectuals wrote about the idea of the consumer to actual public policy developments. Moreover, her emphasis on the significance of the AAA for the subsequent emergence of a consumption-oriented New Deal liberalism offers a less complete and less convincing account of the triumph of Keynesian welfare state liberalism within the New Deal than does Alan Brinkley?s The End of Reform (Knopf, 1995).

Such criticisms are not meant to detract from the value of Donohue?s work. Her principal objective is to trace the gradual development of the intellectual foundations upon which modern liberalism was built, and in this regard she makes a significant contribution. No one narrative can portray all the dimensions of this story, but Donohue deserves praise for dealing in depth with so many diverse thinkers. At times, her distinctions between ?left liberals? and ?consumerist left liberals? and ?new liberals? as opposed to ?corporate liberals? or ?Veblenian liberals? can be confusing. Yet, the confusion may well be an accurate reflection of the fact that the development she traces from the producerist worldview of 1870 to the consumer-oriented consensus that had emerged by mid-century was not unilinear.

Larry G. Gerber is the author of The Limits of Liberalism (NYU Press, 1983) and numerous articles in such journals as Business History Review , Journal of Policy History, Journal of Economic History, and Social Science History. He has just finished a book manuscript entitled ?The Irony of State Intervention: American Industrial Relations Policy in Comparative Perspective, 1914-1939.?

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII