Putting the Responsibility on Consumers

The Templeton Foundation has a series of “Big Question” discussions featuring intellectuals, policy-makers, scientists, etc: the current question is “Does the free market corrode moral character?”

One of the participants in this round is Robert Reich, who served as the Secretary of Labor under the first Clinton administration, and who currently teaches at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. First, a disclaimer: I’ve taken a class with Professor Reich, so I might be biased.

Reich’s response to the posed question is largely taken from his latest book, Supercapitalism (now out in paperback). In a way, Reich’s response to the posed question is not a direct one, because he doesn’t so much answer the question as he puts out the fact that most people in consumerist societies don’t even want to confront the question to begin with:

“Most of us are consumers who try to get the best possible deals in the market. Most of us are also moral beings who try to do the right things in our communities and societies. Unfortunately, our market desires often conflict with our moral commitments. So how do we cope with this conflict? All too often, we avoid it. We would rather the decisions we make as consumers not reflect upon our moral characters. That way we don’t have to make uncomfortable choices between the products and services we want and the ideals to which we aspire.”

The reason for this is that some of our choices in the market have social consequences that we, as consumers, either don’t know or perhaps more important, NOT want to know about:

“Our market transactions have all sorts of moral consequences we’d rather not know about. We may get great deals because a producer has cut costs by setting up shop in poor nations and hiring children who work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, or by eliminating the health and pension benefits of its American employees, or by cutting corners on worker safety. As moral beings, most of us would not intentionally choose these outcomes, but as seekers of great deals we are ultimately responsible for them.”

This is a pretty stark conclusion, one that most public figures would hesitate to make because it places some responsibility on the consumer. And as the saying goes: the consumer is never wrong (except when he is). I gave Reich a lot of credit for having the balls to say this, because it forces people to acknowledge that they are not entirely innocent.

It is flawed logic, as Reich points out, for consumers to expect that producers will morally regulate themselves, because there is always the problem of racing to the bottom unless all companies do the morally responsible thing.

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