Conceptualizing the good society : the idea of the consumer and modern American political thought

Donohue, Kathleen Grace, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Lane, Ann J., Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia

In the 1930s the New Deal Administration assumed responsibility for guaranteeing citizens a minimum standard of living. Only a few decades earlier such state activism would have been inconceivable, not so much because it required government intervention in the economy--the government had long practiced such intervention--but because it required government intervention on behalf of consumption rather than production. "Conceptualizing the 'Good Society'" examines the shift in ideas that had to take place before such government intervention was possible and it looks at the initial impact of those new ideas on public policy.

The crucial shift in political economic thought was the shift from a producer to a consumer focus. "Conceptualizing the 'Good Society'" traces that shift by examining the attempts of a number of intellectuals such as Richard T. Ely, Thorstein Veblen and Edward Bellamy to rethink the idea of the consumer within the producer-oriented society of the late nineteenth century. It then looks at the intellectual efforts of a number of thinkers in the 1920s and 1930s-­ among them Rexford Tugwell, John Dewey, Stuart Chase, Paul Douglas, George Soule, F. J. Schlink, J. B Matthews, James Warbasse, Albert Sonnichsen, Horace Kallen and Gardiner Means--to construct a consumer-oriented political economy. Finally, the dissertation looks at the impact of new notions of the consumer identity on public policy by examining one of the first government agencies to recognize the consumer interest, the New Deal's National Recovery Administration.

By the mid-twentieth century American liberalism had become an ideology that assumed that all members of society were entitled to a certain basic level of comfort and that government had a responsibility to protect that right. Once an ideology that stressed political freedom in order to achieve economic well being, liberalism had become an ideology that stressed economic well being as the prerequisite for political liberty. Consumerist visions of a just society were at the heart of that transformation. I. II.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
public policy, state activism, nineteenth century, consumer identity, National Recovery Administration, liberalism, economics

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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