Entrepreneurship, knowledge and employment

A conceptual history of consumer sovereignty

Desmarais-Tremblay Maxime, Goldsmiths, University of London

The principle of consumer sovereignty is a central tenet of modern political economy. It was popularised by William H. Hutt in his book Economist and the public (1936). A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Hutt worked in a liberal think tank in London before moving to South Africa where he taught economics for decades, before immigrating to the United States in 1965 with the help of James M. Buchanan. He was for many years one of the most active participants of the MPS meetings (Plehwe 2009). By coining the ingenious expression of consumer sovereignty, Hutt was stepping in a long-standing analogy between the virtues of market allocation and democracy. Although Hutt was already based in South Africa at the time, the concept reflects the neoliberal spirit at the LSE in the interwar period (on which see Apel, 1961; Coats, 1982; Tribe, 2009). For Hutt, the principle was an appeal to the virtues of voting in a liberal democracy: impartiality, concern for the minorities, and a default solution to the problem of distribution of wealth. The market mechanism was presented as a rational alternative to the totalitarian threats facing the West. The concept of consumer sovereignty participated in the collective attempt to replace the ambiguity of political judgement with a market-based norm (see Davies, 2015). As the centre of gravity of economics crossed the Atlantic, the concept came to embody the American vision of liberalism, as opposed to Soviet communism during the cold war. It features prominently in Arrow's (1951) conceptualisation of rational collective choice, as Amadae (2003) pointed out. In America, the appeal of the principle was reinforced by the rise of the mass consumption society in which the identities of citizen and consumer become inseparable (see Cohen, 2003). Nonetheless, from its early beginnings onward, the concept of consumer sovereignty has been contested, both in its explanatory power and in its normative value.


Keywords: consumer sovereignty, neoliberalism, William H. Hutt

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