Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

"When to Hold 'Em; When to Fold 'Em": Choosing Consumer Protection Battles

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

"When to Hold 'Em; When to Fold 'Em": Choosing Consumer Protection Battles

Article excerpt

On April 25, 2005, the University of Utah hosted a symposium on consumer policy in honor of the retirement of Dr. John R. Burton. All seven of the papers presented addressed, either directly or indirectly, the nature of the consumer interest. In the companion piece to this article, Dr. Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), describes how a major consumer advocacy organization like CFA decides what public policy positions are in the consumer interest. In this article, Michael Burton, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio University and the son of the symposium's honoree, draws on his experience on the staffs of Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski (1991-93) and Vice President Al Gore (1993-98) to describe and defend the art of compromise in advancing the consumer interest.

--Robert N. Mayer, University of Utah


This paper suggests the value of principled compromise--or, as I like to think of it, political realism rightly understood. It is an approach that lies between the idealism of the single-minded missionary and the cynicism of one who follows the path of least resistance. A good idealism, a powerful idealism, is one that understands the limits of power, calculates risk, and proceeds from a keen sense of political context. I offer a strategy for consumer protection activists in the currently hostile political situation. The guidance proffered emerges from the annals of political science scholarship and my former professional life as a political staffer on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Think of it as an outsider's commentary on the consumer protection movement.

The approach I outline here is well understood by established consumer groups like the Consumer Federation of America. With few patrons, and many free-riding consumers, they understand how business is done in Washington, DC. For those outside the nation's capitol, however, the kinds of compromises that have to be made can seem mysterious, sometimes odious. Activists outside the Beltway can be suspicious of political professionals, even if everyone is on the same side. Steve Brobeck's article discusses the need to identify the consumer interest as distinct from the need to prioritize and compromise. I want to talk about the latter two processes; in doing so, I want to defend professional politicking.

The first part of this article defends principled compromise; the second attempts to apply this approach to consumer protection politics by offering a framework for contemplating strategy in the current political climate. In general terms, I argue that we should put the cart before the horse. Instead of finding the most grievous injustices first and then locating a political home for those issues, we should identify the best political home for consumer protection and find issues suitable to that political context. It is an unabashedly inside-the-Beltway approach to public policy, but it is one of the few options now open to consumer advocates. Insofar as I am addressing consumer advocates, I want to begin with a caveat for my emptors: avail yourself of the guidance offered by this article, its author, or his immediate family, at your own risk.


Principled compromise is a form of political realism. When we think of political realism, we often think of Machiavelli, whose supposedly amoral guidance offered power without principle. The Prince should, for example, hire a thug to do all his dirty work, and when the people tire of the killing, he should kill the thug and become a hero to the weary public. Political theorists often dismiss the final two chapters of The Prince because of their florid language and their talk about the godly responsibilities of the Prince. But no deep exegesis is needed to discover Machiavelli's true intent. His Italy faced imminent collapse, beset with internal unrest and foreign invaders. …

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