Four decades ago, in a landmark Public Interest article titled ‘Public Goods and Private Status’, Joseph Monsen and Anthony Downs took up the question of why American society was, in the phrase coined by John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘privately rich but publicly poor’.footnote1 The authors were not convinced by what they took to be the received explanation at the time: the ‘clever and nefarious advertising techniques’ used by large corporations to manipulate consumers, so that they would ‘buy private goods and services they do not relatively need or want’. Instead, Monsen and Downs suggested ‘a more fundamental factor’ was at work, accounting for the differential allocation of goods between the public and private sectors: a ‘desire’ on the part of consumers ‘for emulation and differentiation’, driving them ‘to create visible distinctions between large groups and classes, and, within such groups, more subtle distinctions of individuality’. Drawing on Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption in The Theory of the Leisure Class, as well as 1960s explanations of status-seeking consumer behaviour in American society, Monsen and Downs described this desire as ‘an intrinsic part of man’s character, evident to at least some degrees in all societies, past and present’—‘so fundamental that it can be considered a “law” of human nature.’

Why should this ‘law of consumer differentiation’, conceived as something close to an anthropological constant, affect the relative allocation of resources between the private and the public spheres of a modern political economy? The central point of Monsen and Downs’s argument is that what they call ‘government goods’—those produced or distributed by public authorities—are ‘designed with an eye to uniformity’. The standardization of army rifles is the most evident case in point:

Such goods are easier to produce and administer by the bureaucracy, and they accord with the ideal of equality which underlies the distribution of government goods. But by that very nature, such goods cannot be used easily for status differentiation which is a major function of most goods in advanced industrial societies.

In what follows, I shall make use of Monsen and Downs’s productive distinction between these two modes of provision, with inherent capacities favouring different kinds of goods: one mode is public and collective, administered by state authorities; the other is private and individual, mediated by commercial markets. But rather than comparing the two modes synchronically, or examining them within the eternal property space of economic anthropology, I will take a longitudinal view on the development of their mutual relationship. Moreover, instead of anchoring product diversification in a timeless human disposition towards status-seeking, I will relate it to a particular mode of utility maximization favoured in the transition from a need-supplying to a want-supplying economy, from sellers’ to buyers’ markets, and from poor to saturated to affluent societies, which was getting underway around the time (1971) that Monsen and Downs’s article appeared. In this sense, I will suggest a return to the ‘institutionalist’ explanation for the starvation of the public sphere, which Monsen and Downs rejected in favour of their human-nature theory.

The late 1960s and early 70s were, we now know, a watershed in the history of post-war democratic capitalism. It has become customary to speak of the crisis and eventual collapse of a more-or-less coherent, international production and consumption regime which, having sustained unprecedented economic growth during the trente glorieuses, began to be referred to summarily as Fordism. Today what is most often remembered about its demise may be the worldwide wave of labour militancy at the end of the 1960s, and with it the refusal of growing sections of the working class to subject themselves to the discipline of Taylorist factories, together with claims for shorter hours, better pay and politically guaranteed rights of citizenship in employment.