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Capitalists Against the Free Market

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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If you listen to the apologists of capitalism, there is one thing they consistently argue for when they rail against things like socialism or even distributism; the Free Market. They say that they believe that the Market should determine what products and services succeed and fail without artificial support or suppression from the government. Customers should be free to decide what products and services they want to buy and it is up to the producers and service providers to convince consumers to choose theirs instead of others. It is interesting to note those cases where they not only fail to support this idea, but actively work against it.

In order for consumers to be able to make a decision that truly represents the action of a free market, the consumer must have the right to know certain things about the products and service providers between which they are choosing. For example, it has generally been recognized that consumers have the right to know the ingredients of food. This is not just for reasons of health, but for other reasons as well. Vegetarians and vegans have the right as consumers to know whether or not the food they are purchasing contains meat or other animal products. This allows them to make a truly free market choice. Consumers also have the right to know who makes a product because, if they think the producer is unscrupulous, they need to have the ability to choose a competitor’s product. If they are prevented from doing this by allowing the producer to be hidden, then the consumer is prevented from making a free market decision they actively want to make.
An important aspect of this consumer choice is that the consumer’s reason does not have to be deemed “reasonable” by others. If you choose not to buy from a particular provider because they support things which you oppose on moral grounds, it doesn’t matter if those things you oppose have nothing to do with the product in question. In a truly free market, you would have the right to refuse to do business with any provider for whatever reason you want. In a truly free market, the consumer would have the right to know what he needs to know to make a truly free decision, and providers should therefore be required to provide this information and prevented from taking steps to hide it. It is the burden of providers to convince consumers to purchase their products and to do so in an open and honest way. If they fail to convince, then their failure is a result of the “invisible hand” of the free market.
In my state, Washington, there was a movement to require the labeling of products containing GMO ingredients. There are various reasons why people are making their free economic choice to not purchase products with patented genetically modified organisms, and these people were asking that their right to make that free market decision be honored by requiring that products containing these ingredients be labeled so that consumers would know what they are buying. What is truly interesting in regard to this article are the arguments I heard made by avowed capitalists against this. The capitalist pundits almost uniformly opposed the legislation on various grounds. The two main arguments made by these capitalists involved the impact to prices and the irrationality of those who opposed GMO products.

They claimed that the cost of changing the labeling would be prohibitively high and the cost of food would skyrocket as a result. There are two points which easily disprove this claim. First, companies change their labels quite frequently when it serves their purpose. They change pictures and rearrange things, they add special sections about offers. If these label changes don’t cause prices to skyrocket, then requiring the labels for future packages to indicate the presence of GMO ingredients won’t either. Second, the requirement has been made in several other countries and their prices didn’t skyrocket. Those who pointed this out were often treated with disdain by these capitalists.

The argument that those who oppose GMO products were doing so irrationally was typically in the form of saying they didn’t understand the science behind the GMO process. However, that isn’t a valid reason to oppose consumer information because the burden is on the producer to convince them to want to buy their products. If a group of consumers decides they would never purchase those products, that is still a free market decision even if the reasons for their choice are incorrect. We should expect avowed capitalists to support the right of consumers to make that decision even if they disagree with the decision itself.

While supporters of the legislation did voice their reasons for not wanting to choose GMO products, their argument about the legislation itself was essentially that they wanted the right to make their free market decision, and they couldn’t effectively do so if these ingredients were allowed to be hidden from them in the marketplace.
Since we know that the labeling requirement would not actually cause prices to skyrocket, what then is the real reason to refuse to indicate that a product contains GMO ingredients? An obvious answer is the loss of sales. In a free market with informed consumers, some of them will freely choose, for whatever reason, not to purchase products that contain GMO ingredients. In terms of free market capitalist economics, that is not only they way things work, but the way they should work. For a producer to refuse or oppose labeling that would inform the consumer about these ingredients is nothing less than deliberately working against free market values; hiding information you know the consumers want in order to effectively trick them into purchasing a product you know they don’t want. This is duplicitous at best.
Why then did so many capitalist who claim to advocate the free market vociferously oppose consumers being allowed to make informed free market decisions? They didn’t even seem to realize that they were opposing a position that essentially said, “let the free market decide the fate of GMO products in the marketplace.” In essence, they were opposing the free market itself.

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One thought on “Capitalists Against the Free Market

  1. David C. on said:

    It’s matters like this where we see the difference between a “capitalist” and a “crony capitalist”. The latter is one who wants to use the force of government to benefit his corporation at the expense of competitors. Which is not capitalist in any sense of the word – it’s just another variation of government control.

    I’ve long argued that “free market capitalism” does not mean the total absence of regulation. Some amount of regulation (less than we have now, but far from none) is necessary in order to ensure that the market really is free.

    For example, a market dominated by one company (a monopoly) or by a closely-tied group of companies (a cartel) is not free, because consumers have no choice. They either buy what the monopoly/cartel is selling at its price or do without. So regulation is required to either prevent the creation of monopolies/cartels or (when the nature of the product is that this isn’t possible) prevent them from abusing their market power.

    Your discussion about product information disclosure is equally relevant. I’m not 100% sure that government regulation is necessary – because some companies will probably choose to label their products without regulations (as we already see some doing) and they will attract the business of those customers who care. But if we see that some segment of the market is controlled by a few big players who are all making identical decisions (meaning those who care really have no choice), then yes, some (hopefully light-touch) regulation becomes necessary because we’re back into monopoly/cartel territory.

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