Over & over again I hear media experts and commentators saying things like “we get the political leaders we deserve” or “we are all culpable for the credit crunch” or “we are all culpable for corporate corruption because we buy the products” or “we are all to blame for exploitation of third world children by Western corporations because we want to buy the products they make cheaply” or “we are all responsible for factory farming because we want cheap food”
But as a citizen, voter and consumer I respond by asking how on earth is it my fault?
Why are consumers morally culpable for the actions of the companies they buy products from? Why are voters responsible for the crimes of politicians they vote for?
The moral argument seems to come from the free-marketeers concept of the “individual, informed and rational consumer”. This mythical figure is central to much that passes as contemporary Washington consensus economics. The theory is that human decision-making is primarily based on individual, rational, self-interest and that over sufficient time informed consumers, as a group (i.e. statistically), will make choices in their own interest and that ameliorated together all these individual informed decisions will amount to the common good.
Clearly, under this model, for markets to work effectively as mechanisms for justly distributing goods and services, consumers have to be sufficiently informed about the costs and benefits of the decisions they are making.
Those who claim that “we are all to blame” for corporate and political misdeeds seem to be assuming that the free-market of fully informed rational individuals is actually operating in the Western world today.
They seem to believe that we are all fully and objectively informed of the balance of costs and benefits of every purchase we make and every cross we make on the ballot paper.
Indeed, if this were so it might be legitimate to claim that we are all to blame for the actions of politicians and corporations.
BUT it clearly isn’t so.
Firstly, human decision-making is as much based on social context, as it is individual rational assessment. That is how fashion works. We all go to great lengths to define our individuality by dressing like everyone else, or more accurately like everyone else in the group (tribe?) we most wish to belong to. We are far more likely to buy an item if other people have done so, and of course this is not irrational and is in our self-interest, human survival and emotional thriving are for most people dependent upon being accepted into a group/community/society.
Secondly, politicians and corporations go to great lengths to hide certain information from voters/consumers and at times deliberately misinform them.
And thirdly, politicians and corporations go to great lengths and spend millions on undermining consumer rationality through the clandestine psychological coercion of advertising. In most of the western world Subliminal Advertising was outlawed in the 50’s and 69’s due to it’s unconscious mind-washing characteristics. Today Advertising is so psychologically sophisticated that it is deliberately acting at all sorts of subliminal levels to unconsciously influence consumer/voter decision-making. So much for the informed consumer.
Those who propose that as a consumer I am personally responsible for the exploitation of third-world children seem to be suggesting that as a consumer I have a moral duty to resist the unconscious effects of subliminal advertising and to consciously research the employment practices of the companies I buy from. Apparently not doing so makes me morally culpable.
But are those making this proposition seriously suggesting that each consumer is morally responsible for resisting advertising and needs to fully research the ethical behaviour of the manufacturers /providers of every product or service they buy?
Can you even begin to imagine how much time that would take? And that’s assuming the information would be available to an ordinary consumer.
Is it reasonable to suggest that we as consumers are supposed to have the time, skills and resources of full-time investigative journalists? Are we all supposed to have the psychological knowledge and insight to recognise the tricks of advertising and resist them?
It is clearly a ridiculous proposition.
In reality voters and consumers have no choice but to expect/hope that politicians and corporations will behave decently and honestly.
Today, this is clearly a laughable proposition with both politicians and corporate executives operating in a moral universe where they can shove their snouts in the trough without any moral approbation and expect the poor to pay to prop up the system if and when it all goes tits up.
But we are not all to blame for this. This is not the responsibility of ordinary voters or consumers, this is a result of the ‘greed is good’, moral bankruptcy of the rapists, fraudsters and war-mongers who make up the Western world’s ruling elite’s. Indeed, the attempt to make us morally as well as financially responsible for their misdeeds is just another example of their craven refusal to take responsibility for anything other than spending their ill-gotten gains.