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The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Consumer Sovereignty

Consumer Sovereignty

Lately, participatory democracy has been countered with the argument that "a dollar is a vote," called the 'consumer sovereignty' or 'consumer choice' argument. "Consumer sovereignty" is a myth perpetuated by large corporations who find it easier to shove around a lot of atomized individuals than to shove around an united front of those same individuals once they're acting in concert. It is used by companies to defend unethical production, marketing, packaging and selling practices. "If people don't like it, they don't have to buy it. Caveat emptor." This argument takes as its basic assumption the idea that the only appropriate way to express your feelings about a product is to either buy it or not buy it. It ignores the possibility of collective, political decisions as well as individual consumer decisions. In so doing, it perpetuates the more basic myth of the unregulated marketplace which somehow magically provides everyone with exactly what they want and/or deserve.

What we call "consumer choice" is really just a choice among available market based alternatives, and it is not even true that corporations respond to what consumers want by developing new products accordingly. Instead, all of the evidence seems to indicate that corporations spend minimal amounts on research and development, and most of their money on "market research," which means finding the best way to convince customers to buy what's available, and marketing, which puts the market research into practice. That people still continue to buy things they don't need and probably would be happier without is more of an indication that people are susceptible to advertising than that people are necessarily happy with what's on the market.

A deeper problem with the consumer sovereignty argument has to do with what's been called the Prisoner's Dilemma. Here's a detailed explanation: The term "Prisoner's Dilemma" refers to an analogy in which two prisoners are planning an escape. If they cooperate, both will escape, but if one betrays the other, then the betrayer will get a reward and the betrayed will get a special punishment. If each betrays the other, both go back to jail. Each prisoner has to make the decision privately on whether or not to betray his partner. For each prisoner, the most rational thing to do is betray the other, even though both would benefit most if both stayed quiet; hence the dilemma.

This is an analogy that often applies in real life. Sure, it would be better if we all, for example, took public transit, but if I take it and everyone else drives, then I have to pay a high price and it takes a long time. If a lot of people took public transit, however, it would be better funded, faster and more efficient. It might even beat driving for convenience and speed. Unfortunately, any one person who individually decides to start taking public transit will be "betrayed" by everyone else, who will continue to drive.

Many market choices involve a variant of the prisoner's dilemma. Health care is an excellent example, in which individuals operating in a private market will try to maximize their own health care plan, which drives up costs for everyone and leaves many people without any access to health care at all. However, a publicly administered, single payer system covers everyone at a lower individual cost. Unfortunately, such a system will never evolve naturally in a market economy, even though most people would be happier with such a system. In most industrialized countries, citizens collectively decided, through their governments, to implement health care systems based on the universal, single payer model. In Canada, for example, support for public health care remains consistently high, in spite of a lot of unwarranted recent bad press. Sometimes, collective decisions that are NOT optimized for market efficiency can be implemented through government acting deliberately and purposefully on behalf of the public in order to provide something that people want, but which will never come about through market mechanisms alone.

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