All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1973

Does Madison Avenue Rule Our Lives?


Mr. Mahoney is now serving in the U.S. Navy, following his graduation in political science from the University of California at Berkeley.

The advocate of any type of planned economy or welfare state must sooner or later, if he is even slightly honest with himself, face the unpleasant reality that he is taking away the people’s right to spend their money in the way they most prefer. Under a competitive and open market system, the individual determines his own life style. One is free to buy or not to buy any product of one’s choice. Under the welfare state, on the other hand, the government makes decisions for us, presumably for our own good. Unfortunately, you may not happen to want medical insurance, public transportation, government-furnished housing, or whatever else Big Brother wants to give you. Too bad, comrade, you may as well use them, because you pay for them whether you like it or not.

The dedicated totalitarian probably won’t lose a minute’s sleep over this discovery. The democratic socialist, however, faces a dilemma. He is “democratic” because he wants to imitate the economy of a communist system without sacrificing basic liberties. Rather than face the inherent impossibility of his goal, he develops rationalizations designed to convey the message that the free market isn’t really free (leaving socialism, of course, as the alternative).

One of the more persistent cliches reads, “Madison Avenue rules our lives.” According to this theory, we buy things that we neither want nor need because we are hopelessly brainwashed by a barrage of clever advertising. Big business, the theory continues, doesn’t need to respond to the consumer’s desires, because the ad men can artificially create a demand for any product their employers produce.

An essential element of this argument is the belief that the American public as a whole is so gullible that it will rush out and waste its money on any product it sees attractively packaged. Few of us want to accept this pessimistic outlook. However, simply because something is unpleasant, it is not necessarily untrue. Nor, by the same reasoning, is it necessarily true.

Personally, I am more optimistic than the potential central planner. If Ford was able to sell anything it produced, we’d still be driving Edsels. Nonetheless, for the sake of this discussion, let’s concede a point and assume — just assume — that the planner is correct, and the average consumer is really incapable of knowing what he wants or needs.

In Place of the Market

What substitute for the market place is proposed by the democratic socialist, and, to a lesser extent, by the contemporary liberal? Simple. We free ourselves from our own folly by turning our money over to the government in the form of taxes. The state, then, provides those services which are most conducive to our welfare.

And who runs the state? Politicians elected by — well, what do you know? — by those very same gullible people who can’t think for themselves. The voter, who (according to the “Madison Avenue-rule theory”) can’t even buy a bar of soap intelligently, is expected to select a President and a Congress wise enough to know what is best for all of us.

If Americans are too foolish to purchase medical insurance, or too selfish to support the genuine needy through voluntary charity, how can we expect them to elect leaders who are smart enough and unselfish enough to make decisions about the lives of others? The only people wise enough to select someone to run their lives are those who never needed anyone to run their lives in the first place.

At this point, one might be tempted to think, as Plato did, that the only way to protect us from the irrational mob is to toss democracy out the window and let our society be controlled by a few authoritarian rulers. Unfortunately, with so many so-called “foolish” people running around, how do we guarantee that our dictator won’t be one of them? How many dictators of the past and present have displayed the wisdom to understand the best interests of an entire nation? (Hitler? Stalin? Castro?) And even if we do man age to get an intelligent Octavian in one generation, we must always live in dread of being saddled with a sick, brutal Nero in the next.

As long as we remain a system of men, rather than angels, a great many bad decisions will be made; this will be true regardless of what form of economy we have — capitalist, socialist, communist, or fascist. Is their really any difference?

Only the difference between a free man and a slave.

The Important Difference

None of us is subject to another consumer’s taste, nor are we hurt by his bad judgment. If my neighbor buys expensive aspirin when cheap aspirin is just as good, he hasn’t hurt me. I’m still free to buy the cheap brand if I so choose. Can anyone say the same for a decision made by government? If that same neighbor votes for an incompetent politician because the old fellow likes to kiss babies, then I suffer the consequences of bad government regardless of how I voted. Further, I pay the bill for every worthless program that Washington decides to launch, whether I support the program or not.

The only way to protect ourselves is to permit as little taxation and government power as possible. Let medicare, social security, Amtrak, and even the post office remain unsubsidized in the minds of the politicians who conceive them. If the majority supports these programs, then that majority will be free to purchase similar services on the open market, which can provide them for anyone who pays voluntarily. But don’t force the rest of us to pay also.

The socialist who complains that the average citizen is easily pursuaded by Madison Avenue, and other attractive forms of packaging, is giving a strong argument in favor of the open market. Competitive private enterprise is the only system which protects the individual against the fickle mob by letting him decline to support its whims.

Although I don’t want my neighbor’s mistakes to hurt me (nor mine to hurt him), there is no reason to assume that I am not concerned about his welfare. I may try to persuade him to do what is best, but I will not force him. I am my brother’s keeper, but only insofar as he welcomes me. Otherwise, I am no longer his brother, but his slave master.