Empowerment of Whom and for What? Financial Literacy Education and the New Regulation of Consumer Financial Services


  • Thanks to Jarvis Hétu for excellent research assistance in the final stages of this project. Earlier versions of this article were presented at several events where I received extremely helpful comments: the 10th International Association of Consumer Law Conference in Lima Peru, May 2005; the Canadian Association of Law Teachers Conference, Vancouver, Canada, June 2005; the Feminist Friday seminar series of the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto Canada, October 2005; the Faculty Seminar Series at Chicago-Kent Law School, Chicago Ill, U.S.A., November 2005; Kent Law School, Canterbury, UK, March 2006; Canadian Law & Society Association meeting, Toronto, June 2006 and the Law Society Association meeting, Baltimore, July 2006. I also would like to thank Iain Ramsay, Freya Kodar, Stephanie Ben-Ishai, Colin Scott and three anonymous reviewers for challenging comments and insightful suggestions.

 Address correspondence to Toni Williams, Kent Law School, Eliot College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NS, UK. Telephone: 0044 (0)1227 827636; e-mail: twilliams@osgoode.yorku.ca


Financial regulators in many states recently have obtained statutory mandates to enhance consumer financial literacy. This paper investigates the development of policy pursuant to such mandates in the UK and Canada to identify how national regulators represent the role of the literate consumer in the financial market place. It finds that regulators in both countries represent financial education as empowering consumers but that each embeds in its policy an implicit normative ordering of responsible consumer behavior. The paper relates the tension between empowerment and responsibilization aspects of literacy enhancement to policy goals of expanding financial markets and assisting financial regulators to manage consumers’ expectations of protection. It raises questions about regulators’ use of consumer education to responsibilize consumption of financial products and calls for further research on the international growth of financial literacy education as a regulatory project.