Consumer Protection as Moral Economy

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Markovits, Daniel


This dissertation consists of three essays on the governance of consumer markets in the United States. Each of them challenges commonly held assumptions about how this governance does and ought to work. An overall theme is the problem with using neoclassical welfare economics to guide consumer protection policy and the value of a more institutionally rich, historically grounded, and normatively thick approach, which is referred to as “moral economy”. The first essay argues for a student debt jubilee. It makes the case that financing of higher education through government-subsidized debt has drifted from its original intent of making college access more equitable and, in any case, was an error to start with. After exploring the benefits of a jubilee and sketching the non-marketized vision of higher education it could help facilitate, the essay argues that the Higher Education Act provides a mechanism for enacting a jubilee through executive action. The essay is as published in April 2020, and so some recent developments in law (and responses to its arguments) are not accounted for. The second essay puts forward a revisionist history of the Federal Trade Commission’s foundational authority over “unfair…acts or practices”. Among consumer protection practitioners and scholars, the FTC’s use of its unfairness authority to attempt to regulate advertising to children is frequently pointed to as a cautionary tale for what happens when consumer protection is too ambitious. This essay argues that the cautionary tale was originally put forward as an anti-regulatory talking point and that the actual history provides much less reason to doubt the wisdom of ambitious use of the unfairness authority. Indeed, the history shows that the boundaries of unfairness have never been settled and contestation over their limits is part of the purpose of the vagueness of the unfairness authority. The third essay outlines a new theory of consumer protection. It motivates the need for a new theory by critiquing the widespread use of “consumer sovereignty” as the ideal to which consumer markets should strive, drawing on work in both moral and social theory. Then it posits an alternative theory of “moral economy” that builds on thicker notions of morality and non-methodologically-individualist notions of market governance. The basic argument is that consumer protection should be seen as a way of managing the contingencies of constructing social provision through a consumer market while ensuring that that provisioning lives up to legitimated social values.

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