All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1981

The Anti-Consumer Lobby

Mr. McGath is a computer programmer end free-lance writer In Hollis, New Hampshire.

“Consumerism” is all around us. We can see its effects every time we get into a car that buzzes to demand that we put on seat belts. We can see it in legally mandated warnings and warranties. It also affects us in less obvious ways, such as the impossibility of buying goods that do not satisfy the requirements of “consumer protection” laws, and the higher prices that we pay for the inclusion of features mandated by these laws.

“Consumerism,” according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, is “the promotion of con sumers’ interests (as against false advertising or shoddy goods).” But a definition such as this is too vague to be satisfactory. Consumers are not a separate class of people with distinct interests; everyone must consume in order to live.

It is true, however, that certain conditions are necessary if people are to satisfy their own desires for consumption; and the advocacy of these conditions could be considered as “promotion of consumers’ interests.”

The necessary precondition of consumption is production. Anything that is consumed must first be produced. The person who wishes to consume, if he is not a parasite, must produce either the goods he needs or something to trade for those goods.

In order to benefit from his productive activity, the individual must be free to make his own choices. A person should be free to produce what he wants, if he is able, or to trade for what he wants, if someone is willing to trade with him. No one may rightfully interfere with productive activity, or with a trade to which both parties have consented, as long as such activity does not impinge on anyone else’s rights. Conversely, a person should not be required to produce or buy what he does not want. The consumer must be the ultimate judge of his own needs and desires. If he is prevented from exercising his own judgment on what he wants and doesn’t want, he is prevented from obtaining what is most valuable to him.

The Conditions for Trade

If trade is to exist, not only compulsion but also deception must be excluded from people’s dealings. If someone accepts a buyer’s money in exchange for goods, and if the seller fails to deliver what he has promised, he has violated the buyer’s rights and should at least be required to make restitution to him. Other legal penalties may be appropriate in the case of deliberate or habitual default. The buyer is not entitled to more than what the seller represents as to functionality or quality, but he has a right to hold the seller to an agreement that both have accepted.

In brief, consumption depends on production and trade, and these in turn depend on individual rights. A person who wishes to help people to become more effective consumers should, therefore, be an advocate of individual rights. Yet what passes for “consumerism” today does not follow such a principle. Rather than promoting a political-economic environment in which the consumer can make the best choices for himself, “consumerists” take the view that the consumer is incapable of making intelligent choices and that the government must make his decisions for him.

Susan B. King, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, was quoted in the August 20, 1979 issue of People as saying, “Changing human behavior is a long-term and difficult problem. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can in the meantime to protect us from ourselves.”

In Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader declared that “safety measures that do not require people’s voluntary and repeated cooperation are more effective than those which do.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, in The Affluent Society, views the consumer as the helpless puppet of the producer, claiming that “it is the process of satisfying wants that creates the wants.”

But the consumer is simply the individual human being, making choices for himself. According to the consumerist view, as expressed by King, Nader, and Galbraith, the consumer as an individual is helpless to make sound decisions for himself. They believe that the government, or “society,” must make decisions for him.

A Doctrine of Contempt

Consumerism, as the term is used today, means a specific view of the consumer and his interests: the view that the consumer is not the best judge of his own interests, that he must be protected from himself by having his choices restricted. Only in the light of this view can consumerism be regarded as “promotion of consumers’ interests.” Whatever validity such a view might have, it is a doctrine of contempt for the consumer.

The consumerist view is not simply that product choices are too complex for the consumer. They would not speak of protecting people from themselves, or bemoan the need for voluntary cooperation, if their concern were the sheer difficulty of gathering a mass of information and digesting it. Rather, the consumerists hold that even when a consumer is presented with a plain, rational explanation of what the best choice is for him, he will not make that choice.

But people do have the power to think. If someone refuses to face the facts and choose accordingly, it is not because he was helpless, but because he defaulted on his responsibility to think. There is no reason why the rest of us should be deprived of freedom of choice in order to protect such people from their own irresponsibility.

The Consumer Is Injured

Since only the individual can be the ultimate judge of what is of value to him, he is injured every time the consumerists act to “protect” him. The consumer must make trade-offs based on his own values when he decides what to buy. Consider, for example, a choice among products with different levels of safety protection.

The consumer may decide to buy the product with the most thorough protection against accidents. But he must then pay for this protection, either through a higher price, or by giving up other features. (For example, he might want to buy a lawn mower that shut itself off whenever he let go of the handle. But having such a feature added would cost money, and it would deprive him of the convenience of being able to walk away from the mower and leave it running.) Alternatively, he may prefer to forgo some safety features, accepting an increased risk in order to save his money for something else. Or he may regard the safety features as unnecessary in the light of his own skill and prudence.

Since the money he is spending is his own, the choice of how to spend it is rightfully his. By forcing a particular choice on him, his “protectors” deprive him of the freedom to make his own selection. The result is a loss to him, if he cannot legally buy what he would prefer.

There are, to be sure, people who benefit from consumerist legislation. The beneficiaries are the people who want the goods mandated by that legislation. In a free market, there may not have been enough demand for those goods to spur anyone to produce them. But once the law states that only those goods (e.g., only lawn mowers with automatic shutoff) may be produced, they will be produced and sold. Those who wanted those goods will indeed benefit—but their advantage is gained at the cost of everyone else’s freedom of choice.

This loss of freedom affects two groups of people—those who want to buy the forbidden goods, and those who had produced such goods for sale. While this article has focused on the fact that consumerism prevents people from buying what they want, it should not be forgotten that the most direct victims of consumerism are the people who are prevented from selling what they had been producing. The laws that give the consumerists what they want often mean financial loss or worse to the businesses that had been producing what the consumerists do not want, and unemployment to the employees of those businesses.

In a free market, consumers must compete for the time and resources of producers; the consumers whose willingness to pay offers the greatest profit to the producers will have their desires met most readily. The consumerists, on the other hand, seek to corner the market by means of legalized compulsion, so that only what they want may be produced. Most people would condemn a businessman who lobbied for laws forcing people to buy only his products; but a consumerist who lobbies for laws forcing businessmen to sell only what he wants is no better.

Those Gains Are Ill-Gotten that Rest on Compulsion

There are businesses, as well as consumers, that benefit from consumerist legislation. The businesses that are best able to adapt to such legislation may find their competitors weakened or wiped out by the costs of compliance, allowing the survivors to gain a larger market. But this is an ill-gotten gain, won by means of compulsion.

Consumerists use compulsion to influence consumers; but it is also possible to influence consumers by appealing to their minds. Consumerism should not be confused with the desire to provide consumers with better information and help them make better choices. Informing a person, and compelling him, are actions based on two very different estimates of his capacities. If he is incapable of making his own choices intelligently, then there is no use in trying to inform him. At best, he will only absorb recommendations without understanding the reasoning behind them; and the first glamorous ad he sees will probably make him forget them altogether. If, on the other hand, he is capable of judging products when he is adequately informed, then he has no need to be protected against his own judgment.

In fact, the popularity and usefulness of consumer-information publications gives the lie to the consumerist claim that people are incapable of making sound choices on their own. A person does not have to be an expert on every product he buys in order to choose intelligently; the consumer-information publications provide him with the advice of experts at a low price. By taking this advice into account, along with his own observations of the product and his knowledge of the manufacturer’s reputation, he can choose what is best for his own needs.

Critics of consumerism often try to attack it by debating the merits of specific product proposals—for example, the degree of risk and protection entailed in putting air bags into cars. But the point on which the consumerists should be challenged is not their preference for certain features, but their desire to make such preferences compulsory. This requires challenging their political premise that the government should use compulsion to prevent people from making allegedly bad choices. Challenging their politics, in turn, requires challenging their psychological premise that people are incapable of choosing rationally for themselves.

The society in which people have the greatest opportunity to obtain what they properly desire is not one that places their actions under the rule of authority, but one in which they are free to make their own choices. The principle on which such a society is based is not “consumerism,” but individualism.

  • Gary McGath is a freelance software engineer living in Nashua, New Hampshire.