The myth of the rational voter — and consumer


I lurk at Neoreaction blogs; the brand outweighs the message, and for the most part, neoreactionary blogs cover territory that myself, Houellebecq, Charlton, et al covered decades ago. But sometimes there is insight. Neovictorian23 puts a finger on a fundamental problem with free markets:

Crawford has some insights that can add value to the conversation. He probably doesn’t consider himself “Darkly Enlightened” but his placement of our entire lives, and our most basic perceptions, within our relation to other humans is a bracing antidote to the Cogito ergo sum of Descartes and the Sum ergo cogito of Ayn Rand. He’s certainly no “collectivist” but his critique of the libertarian fiction of the Sovereign Consumer making rational choices while swimming in a sea of corporate persuasion is devastating. Neoreaction needs to pursue this line more thoroughly.

For those of us who are free market advocates there is no running away from this problem: much as demotism — the dominance of mass opinion over common sense — rears its head in democratic politics, it also does so in the markets. Consumers (statistically) prefer Big Macs, Budweiser, Marlboro Lights and The Expendables to quality. Therein lies a problem.

One defense of free markets states that thus the masses occupy themselves, and others break away, but this seems to ignore the fact that if many exist as a market for a trivial product, this product will soon displace the better versions which existed before. In the United States, at least, we have seen this pattern play itself out time and again.

What results is that good and functional products get relegated to the luxury category, and cost five times as much as the usual. This is not the worst possible outcome, in that those who allocate money to these products get the quality version. The real effect is that an entire society shifts from quality products to mediocre ones, and adjusts its expectations of life to match. Bad products produce a negative attitude in the population which rewards more of the mediocre.

For this reason, we see the myth of the rational consumer as dangerous: in the desire to find an “invisible hand” system which manages society in the absence of rule by the excellent, a.k.a. aristocrats, we find ourselves facing the same problem that all human systems do. Most people operate at the level of monkeys. They can snap out of it for technical tasks, and even disguise it behind socializing, but underneath, their motivations are the same desperate grab at power while making themselves look important that distinguishes our Simian cousins.

There is no way around this problem. On the Left, the pundits suggest we have a centralized economy which commands what is right, but this works poorly; on the Right, the tendency is to suggest that the market will even itself out. I suggest not a third path, nor a hybrid, but a way between those two using both: a caste system.

When a caste of higher status purchasers exists, and the financial reward is there and nowhere else, the free market system behaves sensibly by rewarding products that fit the discriminating tastes of this group. Those without the money to indulge in certain things go without them, but as a result the rest of us do not suffer lower standards created by “democratization” of commerce.

This form of market was in operation as little as fifty years ago. The upper half of the middle class did all of the buying; everyone else tagged along. As a result, we all benefited from the more discerning taste of those consumers, and products were more durable and of finer characteristics. Since that time, we have abandoned caste for raw democracy, and the products have adapted to their audience and become, like that audience, mediocre.

Free markets are a wonderful tool. Tools themselves however do not present solutions, only methods toward solutions. Without guidance, the tool becomes the master and the goal is forgotten. In the case of free markets, the tool prospers under discipline from the more refined parts of society, but when left up to the winds of change, ends up as a third-world bazaar where quality is forgotten and only novelty and popularity matter.

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10 Responses to “The myth of the rational voter — and consumer”

  1. MeToo says:

    “What results is that good and functional products get relegated to the luxury category, and cost five times as much as the usual. This is not the worst possible outcome, in that those who allocate money to these products get the quality version.”

    There are fewer “luxury” products available and they do cost much more – it is all due to the excessive human population. There are only so many trees, minerals, metals, etc. from which to make these things and it’s not only the western world who is demanding them now. Cut the population in half and more natural resources are freed up for good quality products.

    And I hope that any large decrease in the population occurs through attrition (stop keeping the chronically sick and unproductive alive through high tech medicine, and various forms of welfare) and not disasters & nuclear wars, but I have the sick feeling my wish will turn out to be wrong.

    Nature laughs last, irrespective of our love for our ideologies and political systems.

  2. Johann Theron says:

    Excellent, like good wine, a mature, qualitative statement, rather than deduction or opinion. As you say, devastatingly raw, bazaar-like example of a future where even tools can’t evolve and civilization is replaced by nature. Haha, culture becomes nature?

  3. Stefan Pyles says:

    I disagree with several points of your critique, as well as your general attitude and assumptions.

    However pragmatic your model appears, it fails to account for the physics of civilization or the chemistry of interdependence. Moreover, that liberalism ascended so quickly and violently spells the doom of your model regardless the quality of the blog.

    I want to posit a revised history of America for argument’s sake:

    The American Revolution was no revolution at all.

    In fact, it was a bourgeois coup led primarily by radicals fueled by proto-Jacobin idealism. Thus, the Civil War was the true proletarian revolution. It contained all the stock Marxist elements: industrial workers, many of them indigent immigrants from Europe, which ties in the agricultural element, and the intelligentsia, which found itself sandwiched between indifferent, uneducated labor and religious radicalism. In this light, Lincoln looks more Leninist than Republican or Democrat: autocratic conscription of nascent industrial might and a full-scale military rout of a proto-capitalist system affected only when compromise proved irrelevant as reactionary and revolutionary radicals abandoned republican values in search of victory elsewhere. And this occurred not only on the level of small-scale attrition. Propaganda campaigns waged in both the North and South: “armchair” ideologues, reminiscent of Marat, issued apocalyptic, moralistic and nationalistic calls-to-arms.

    Most revolutionary societies undergo a period of jingoistic crusading beyond the borders of the homeland. The American Revolutionary Republic did not endeavor in this way. Americans had the space to stretch out and ventilate as France, Germany, Russia, China and others did not. And only because smallpox achieved what even nuclear and atomic weaponry can only envy in terms of slaughter.

    But the Revolution itself solved only the “British” problem. Rampant among New-Worlders were religious, ethnic and political prejudices that rendered the notion of nationalism all but irrelevant until the Civil War. It was then that America had its first identity crisis and the American Revolutionary Republic was no more.

    The propaganda of the American Revolution differed vastly from that issued during the Civil War. Common Sense and the Federalist Papers were extraordinarily successful because they employed sound logic, moral reasoning and pragmatism to sway the masses. The Civil War was waged as skirmishes and compromises of attrition replete with literal political cartoons as well as walking political cartoons.

    Following Lincoln’s assassination, industrialization and modernization skyrocketed. The ascension of Progressivism, Social Darwinism and the KKK was the American Thermidorian Reaction, The primacy of the Bolsheviks, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and Mao Zedong imbalanced the scales and provided alienated and disenfranchised Americans counter-narratives to the likes and ideological ilk of Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Heart.

    FDR was the first true socialist president. Then, Truman and Eisenhower, moderates and pragmatists who feared foreign totalitarianism and domestic tyranny equally, resettled the war-addled seas as the Beatniks, Kinsey and the British Invasion fomented the collapse of America as anyone knew it.

    The Catcher in the Rye became the Pusher in the Rye and everyone wonders why. It’s not a mystery, but they call it the mystery of lawlessness because so few ever decode it. And they are mostly dead now.

    It is likely J. Edgar Hoover ordered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination as it is equally likely Richard M. Nixon ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the CIA killed John Lennon, which strikes me as ironic and ridiculous because the CIA’s hilarious jihad on Castro.

    We had to scour Earth for bin Laden, level Baghdad for Hussein, await Arab Spring to oust Qaddafi, and in the process catalyze the legitimacy and ascension of jihad, which America’s actions incentivized to embrace an entirely new method of mayhem, not unlike the Mafia during Prohibition and the drug cartels during the 40-year Machiavellian bacchanalia known as the War on Drugs.

    Hilariously, I have managed to evade ideology, nihilism and insanity, and despite 27 years of rational arguments for all three. I have had ridiculous and lamentable experiences in the primary education system, juvenile and adult justice systems, higher education and beyond. To all the philosophasters and imbecilic pastors, teachers, cops and politicians, if I wasn’t psychologically “imbalanced,” I was a criminal or a potential terrorist or psychologically unhinged. And yet, despite the liberal psychobabble and conservative atavism to which I have been relentlessly subjected by the kakistocratic crack squad called the U.S. government – Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal: does not matter an iota – I have survived to become not only a Christian after a decade of atheism, but a superior scholar and human being, and completely independently of all social, political, economic and religious constructs, restraints, and complaints.

    I would likely fit your description of the mentally ill Leftist and yet I as well fit the mold of a libertarian cliche. The problem with your psychology is it’s little more than the demonology and eschatology guiding the Catholic Church during the Inquisition and Crusades. It paints the world as a narrow coliseum of absolutes predicated on assumptions that must dismiss offhandedly or outright refuse to acknowledge generic historical trends and metaphysical and physical realities in order to reach a logical conclusion.

    It is always easy for those who have experienced little of the world’s cruelty and stupidity to cast aspersions and bland moral judgments on those who have suffered the premium blitzkrieg of American nonsense for no other reason than people with badges, degrees, titles, seals, and guns tend not to have an iota of a clue what the hell they are doing, and thus defer to prosaic and antiquated heuristics to justify the laissez-faire abandonment of reason, faith and anything even vaguely related to problem-solving. If this is not the case, how do we explain the devolution of America? How do we explain that history has never changed an iota; only the scenery has changed.

    Psychology is a pseudo-science and offers only tasteless reductionism and obscurantism to those who already subsist on both. It fails to differentiate itself from all the backward isms of man.

    You criticize all critics as deranged messianic automatons. You criticize all isms with which you disagree as the bastards of other isms with which you disagree. In order to get to your ism, you must whittle and sand and shave and whimsically hack away at countless other isms of countless other ages. There is no master race because the race never stops. It’s a congested, amphetamine-fueled death race to pockmarks of ghettos spattered like blood across a post-apocalyptic landscape.

    Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s all a fucking tragedy or travesty and we should all feel really inspired and compelled to frolic merrily amid a pyrophoric orgy of know-it-alls and know-nothings.

    Whatever happened to, like, being a person, like a human being, with hands and a face and other things? What would happen if all the fucking sociologists and political pseudo-scientists and recursive apologists stopped thinking they had it all figured out?

    I’m pretty sure Jesus would be all like, “Yo, did you people even get the memo? Like, what. the. fuck.”

    The only thing that separates people from animals is the capacity to apply arbitrary meaning. And based on that and that alone, characters like Pyrrho, Diogenes, Homer and Socrates are more enjoyable than any of the tedious manifestos issued from the whitewashed, neurotic and uber-self-reverential halls of wherever the fuck people sit around and obsessively compartmentalize the world because it’s less insufferable than actually living in it.

    You know why the Antichrist will emerge out of the Internet as a seemingly immaculate manifestation of God regardless the observer?

    Because people. Oh, and capitalism, and that pesky little mutation called, um, consciousness.

    God does not let wealth and power stay in the same hands for long. That’s why the history of the world is littered with dead societies, and why America will soon join those ranks.

    “Consciousness went straight to their heads. I’ve seen this shit show before.”

    (By the way, I only wrote this because I think you’re someone with whom I will enjoy arguing. I read three posts. But I love to argue and talk about these sorts of things because what the hell else is there to do? The FBI told me just last week, actually, to “get a job.” At this point, my response is, “I don’t fund terrorism, chief, but thanks anyway.” It’s a fucking circus, man, the whole human thing.)

    • hhhhhh says:

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  4. Wrong Side of History says:

    The role of advertisement (half-naked women appearing out of the ether if you purchase product A) cannot be understated. The entire purpose of industry is to manipulate consumers into making irrational choices.

  5. JPW says:

    The closest you will ever get to perfect information is a well-informed rational expectation. A rational expectation is the most logical guess that you can make concerning the future state of a potentially chaotic system. In other words, you can do your homework, apply sound logic and analyze the data using the most up-to-date empirical methodologies available. And then still look like an ill-informed rube.

  6. Cynical Optimist says:

    The quality of basic appliances and household items is incredibly frustrating. The “high end” is usually still the same Chinese plastic crap, except that it has some additional marketing gimmicks, like syncing to your facebook account (exaggerating here) and having a “extra super duper deep clean” button. But then the basic parts fail at the same rate. Even among top-of-the-line blenders, all the Ninja models (which are over $100 and 1000+ watts) have a plastic base and plastic pitcher.

    Old school quality items, on the other hand, are a novelty nowadays, which is completely backwards. For example, you can’t get a safety razor and pack of blades at Walmart or Target. You can get an old-school KitchenAid mixer, but that’s a luxury item that costs $200-$300. For clothes, you can easily find cheap polyester suits and dress shirts that make you sweat as if you are wearing a trash bag, but it’s harder to find wool suits and cotton dress shirts. This goes for food items too: it’s very hard to find full-fat greek yogurt, because all the greek yogurt is marketed to health fanatics who mistakenly want fat-free. But of course you can get all sorts of flavorings with it.

    For personal hygiene products, everything now has “fragrance” which is the catch all term for everything bad for you and the environment.

    In response, there is a niche market for more natural versions, but this caters to the SWPL crowd and becomes pretentious and expensive. In response, the basic brands offer their own “free and clear” versions, but it is doubtful that they are fundamentally better than the mainstream lines, and it’s hard to tell the difference.

    On top of it, old-fashioned skills and tricks become obscure and forgotten (e.g., use baking soda for this or vinegar for that) and take a lot of internet searching to find.

    I guess I should be more forgiving of the nudges toward bringing your own grocery bag…it’s just that it comes loaded with pretense and moral judgment.

    • hhhhhh says:

      I like this guy.

      You’re just describing the effects of the destruction of culture. The reasons why/how it is being destroyed are innumerable, but can principally be attributed to subversion of society by outsiders. This takes too many forms to outline here, but unless the problem of cultural subversion is addressed, then you might as well just be jacking off instead of offering non-solutions.

  7. hhhhhh says:

    I think, fundamentally, the flaw in your thinking is that you assume societies continually get dumber. While this is currently the case in the West, it actually is not the norm. This situation is only possible when particular leftist policies are in place. Without them, alot of the problems you describe can not exist.

    “Consumers (statistically) prefer Big Macs, Budweiser, Marlboro Lights and The Expendables to quality.”
    All these things shorten life-span(even the shitty movies, but indirectly), and that if their children. A few generations of this and their lineage dies out. It is self-correcting. If course, there were also many mechanisms in the past that are now forbidden in the US that addressed the issue. Duels would be an example. Also, extreme ostracization, even ti the point of banishment. There are plenty of others as well. I can’t put a sign in my store that says “No Fatties”, alright such a thing would be common without a leftist government.

    “this product will soon displace the better versions which existed before.”
    Then how did those products exist, even today over 200 years since the founding of the US? The reason good companies keep going out of business is that increasing government regulations are making their businesses impossible to operate. Mega stores can not exist in a free market. You are also song the effect of the population being dumbed down, partially because of government-run schools.

    “What results is that good and functional products get relegated to the luxury category, and cost five times as much as the usual.”
    Prices don’t just quintuple in their own. Perhaps a more fundamental cause is a decrease in the number of artisans. Lower supply means higher cost. There are many causes for the loss of artisans, but the most glaring cause is that government schools do not teach artisanal skills. Trade schools, which used to be common, are almost now nonexistent. You can thank the leftist government. You should yourself also be producing more than the slave class,and thus afford more expensive products.

    A caste system happens on its own in the free market. No welfare system and no minimum wage means the slave class has little influence on the market. You even go on to say that everything was better when the middle class had more power. Well, that didn’t happen because of government decree; the middle class emerged spontaneously from having a free market. There is no middle class without a free market, as clearly evidence by the thousands of years where no such thing can be found. You seem to contradict yourself by saying the upper middle class having control of what gets built is a good thing. Your argument, as I understand it, is that ONLY an aristocracy cam properly lead an economy. Are you including upper middle class in your definition of aristocracy? What you prove, in my reading, is that the destruction of the middle class is the destruction of society. It is the leftist government that has deliberately destroyed the middle class. It is the departure from the free market that has done this.

    I get the impression that you don’t understand that nothing in the US remotely resembles a free market. This axiom, “If you’re uncertain, then you can presume it’s illegal” is the absolute proof that there is no free market. Historically in the US, people just built sky scrapers, dams, power plants, and other massive infrastructure with absolutely no consultation with government of any kind. You could just open up an opium den/heart surgery center/raw seafood restaurant/cement factory with absolutely no fear of government interference. Now try even just selling raw milk today; they literally send SWAT teams and guys in hazmat suits to seize the milk. There is no free market in the US, although it is still relatively free compared to other nations.

  8. Eduardo the Magnificent says:

    Your caste system will only work with a free market. We currently do not have one, not even close, which is why products fall to the least common denominator. Inventors drive the creation of quality products, and all creative incentive is now gone. What is there to spur someone on to make a better mousetrap (or XBox) if there are MOUNTAINS of red tape in the way of getting his product to the public? And taxes out the roof on his profit? Corporations know that the likelihood of an innovative product competing with theirs is slim to none, so they are no longer compelled to produce a superior product because consumers have no real competitor to compare it to. Bring back competition, and prices will go down and quality will go up. I’m surprised that has escaped you. This isn’t an “idiots buying dumb shit” problem. This is a “no quality choices available” problem.

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