Friday, February 3, 2012

Consumer Complicity and Competition

Perhaps John was not intentionally calling me out in his last post, but I have to register an argument in favor of Barrera's view, though I have not yet read Barrera's book.

In a competitive market, producers can be constrained to either participate in the market using the lowest-cost production methods, or not participate at all.  This is why we like competition.  This competition has a dark side, however, when low-cost production methods involve some sort of ethical compromise.  In industries that are not competitive, producers might be said to bear some large amount of the moral culpability for legal but unethical production practices, but in competitive markets, it seems, we have to either maintain that no-one is culpable, or that the culpability is wider, encompassing the entire industry, and perhaps the government and consumers as well.

Ideally industry organizations or governments would regulate business practices so that competitive pressure is directed toward ethical production practices.  This type of regulation, incidentally, is the topic of a paper abstract I have submitted to the ASE world congress.  Absent this type of regulation, and especially when the state does not share all of the ethical convictions of a religious community, it seems that consumers, by paying attention only to prices and product quality, are morally complicit in, individually or collectively, the ethical harm.  Even if one consumer cannot change the practices of an industry, they can support, with their dollars, alternative production methods.

John uses the contraceptive example, but my area of focus is, of course, the food industry.  It would be odd to say that agriculture, and animal husbandry, is an industry that Christians should not participate in, and yet industrial animal agriculture, with all of it's ethical problems, is the only way to make a living for most farmers.  Competition in the market for poultry and pork necessitates that farmers either sell at 50% above the market price, or adopt the standard industry practices.  It is possible that similar arguments could be made about labor treatment in other agricultural markets as well.  If we want to condemn these practices, and I do think we need to condemn some of them, then we will usually end up pointing fingers back at ourselves, either as consumers, for supporting firms that are competitive because they are unethical, or as voters, for not properly regulating these industries.

There is more to be said here.  The biggest hole in this argument so far is that I have not discussed the possibility of industry self-regulation.  I will have to deal with this in my paper, but it is a larger topic that would take me in a different direction.


John Tiemstra said...

I think the basic difference between me and Steve on this issue is that I think that competition is a weaker force than he thinks it is. Miller's Amish chicken is more expensive than other brands, but it survives in the marketplace because of superior quality as well as ethical advantages. But as a consumer I have no direct role in deciding how chicken is raised, however much I might wish industry practices to be different. Responsibility lies with the managers, and it's about time we focussed on their ethics and their role, rather than excusing them by talking about competition.

There are also issues with information. Al seems to think that information about production methods is easy to obtain and process. I think we're way too dependent on the media's taste for the salacious to have very much dependable information about more than a few isolated industries. And I have trouble enough trying to manage my retirement accounts without collecting exhaustive info. about every possible alternative investment.

I don't want to seem like I don't take this seriously, but there's a wonderful send-up of this idea on the first episode of "Portlandia":

Mservetus said...

I disagree with the MIT-trained professor. In today's information-rich society, consumers have the access and ability to make informed purchases, if they so desire. Free-range chicken (Miller's?) has a market precisely because consumers have decided that there be one. It is the invisible hand, which has been proven to be more efficient and beneficial to society than the heavy hand of a vanguard of economists, for example. As another example, college students can visit before picking an economics professor.