Amerika

The myth of the rational voter — and consumer

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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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