|The Future of Freedom Foundation|
The details in both stories are interesting. But the larger context is lost in the particulars. Americans, and Westerners generally, cannot count economic history among their strong suits. They take the bountiful retail landscape for granted, as though it were a natural fixture. You need something? No problem. Get in the car; drive to the store; pick it off the shelf; pay the modest price; and return home. Piece of cake.
Buying wasnt always so easy. In fact, it wasnt always possible. Its not just that there were times when the product variety was smaller, the quality lower, and the real price higher (measured by how long one had to work to earn the money). I am saying there were times when you and I ordinary people without power or connections didnt matter to those who produced the goods. Surveying the long sweep of history, we find that the period in which manufacturers worked to satisfy not an elite, but ordinary people, has been incredibly short. But since that period includes the lifetime of every person walking around today, this fact is terribly unappreciated, if not unknown altogether.
Its easy to find fault with how some people do business, and legitimate grievances (such as fraud) should be redressed. But we lose sight of the bigger picture at our peril. The key element of this picture is that until the still-defamed Industrial Revolution and the advent of market-oriented society, virtually all production was exclusively for the powerful.
Ordinary people went through life with little in the way of clothing and household items. During the Middle Ages the clothes off the back of a plague victim commanded a price people were that desperate for garments. Sanitation was nonexistent. Personal hygiene was unheard of. Famine was an ever-pending threat. Forget about medical care.
The Industrial Revolution, stimulated by personal liberty, secure property rights, the division of labor, and investment, was a sea change. For the first time, mass production at low prices was the path to high income. Ordinary people could afford more than one set of clothes and household conveniences. Personal hygiene came within reach. Labor-saving devices appeared. Advances in sanitation and medicine followed. In short order, retailers presented a cornucopia of goods increasingly accessible to the masses. It truly was, as the title of a book had it, the birth of a consumer society. Progress continues virtually unabated, disrupted only by governments unique products: taxes, regulation, inflation, depression, and war.
Elitist authors who already have theirs, sneer at broadening consumerism and expanding choice, but no one is forced to partake of the cornucopia. Consumerism and freedom go hand in hand.
This perspective sheds light on the Wal-Mart wage controversy and similar subjects. Those unschooled in economics wonder why Wal-Mart doesnt pay its workforce more. They fail to realize that the real bosses in a consumer society are not the nominal employers but the customers. Legally and morally, capitalists control their businesses by right. But existentially, they hold them only at the pleasure of the consumer. When they stop doing a better job than their competitors, they lose sales and, if they dont shape up, they lose their businesses. The consumer trumps even Donald Trump. The consumer determines the height of wages. Defy him and he says, Youre fired. In a free market, no businessman, not Bill Gates, not the CEO of Wal-Mart, sleeps soundly.
to be humanitarian, forcing Wal-Mart to increase its costs harms consumers
and is self-defeating because workers are consumers too. In the market,
each of us makes demands of producers and each of us has demands made
of him. The result is an unplanned, yet orderly, prosperous, and free
society. The challenge is to keep the economically ignorant from gaining
power and wrecking it.
Samuel Bostaph is head of the economics department at the University of Dallas and an academic advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation
Anthony Gregory is a policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation
James Bovard is author of The Bush Betrayal and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation
Benedict LaRosa is a historian and writer and serves as a policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation
Bart Frazier is program director at The Future of Freedom Foundation.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va., author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine.
Mr. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.