Book/Article Reviews

Ben Barber’s Consumed: Where’s the Evidence?

Unfortunately, due to a series of unfortunate events, it’s going to be just Peter and I versus Barber at Cato Unbound this month. I don’t know if Barber intends to respond further.

In a new short piece, I criticize Barber’s Consumed for failing to provide proper evidence for, well, any of its claims. Barber argues by hurling accusations and assertions, and backs these up at most with a few anecdotes. That won’t do, as I explain here.


We also don’t see any empirical evidence from Barber that market societies actually undermine citizens’ participation in democracy. Barber believes that markets draw us away from the forum and public life and into private concerns. But, again, he doesn’t provide proper evidence this is so. We might try to test this thesis by seeing whether more marketized societies have lower rates of political participation. To that end, in our book, Peter and I look at standard measures of voter turnout for the world’s democracies and then plot these against the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom rankings. We find a very slight but statistically significant positive correlation: all things equal, the more capitalist a society is, the higher voter turnout it has. We note in the book that this is not sufficient to prove for sure that markets do not reduce participation, but still, we’ve brought a knife to what’s supposed to be a gun fight, but in which the other party came unarmed.

For someone who decries consumerism and the supposed anti-intellectualism of capitalism, Barber is a strange and ironic character. He’s a member of the political science profession, but seems to have no respect for the basic methods of the field. Ironically, it seems like Barber is happy to violate standards of evidence or norms of argumentative rigor… for moneyand fame.


I was disappointed in Barber’s behavior. I didn’t expect him to make a good counterargument, but I expected him to at least engage us in a serious manner.

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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Pajser

    Economic freedom rankings contains information about corruption, which is not related to “how much society is capitalistic” — corruption harms “less capitalist” societies equally or worse than “more capitalist” societies – and it could be the main reason for distrust in political participation. So, if in despite of corruption information, “better ranked” countries show only slight advantage in participation, I incline to think that Barber could be right.

    • John Dougan

      That effect maybe countered by the tendency corrupt democracies have of faking voter turnout. I.e. Chicago.
      Clearly, better data is needed.

    • BlasterDude

      Looking at the top 20 on the Corruption Perception Index (where Heritage gets its corruption data from), it’s still a pretty big win for market societies. Furthermore, Heritage combines the CPI with a property rights/”rule of law” measure in an attempt to zero-in on corruption that specifically interferes with market activity.

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