The most staunchly free-market thinkers in history have acknowledged both a moral and an immoral manner of economic activity. Even Ayn Rand, author of the audaciously titled The Virtue of Selfishness, recognized, for example, that government must exist to uphold property rights, and that anarcho-capitalism – the belief that the free market should exist instead of a state government — would lead to immoral theft and brutality. She also held that participation in the free market was itself a moral activity, that man had the intrinsic right to consume only as much as he produced. We are all producers and consumers to some extent, and we share an obligation to do each morally. The question is, in which role do we assume a greater moral responsibility, that of producers or consumers? This dilemma grows increasingly relevant as we face the unforeseen consequences of the once-widespread (if unstated) assumption that limitless natural resources would allow us to produce forever. In what follows, the dashing Tommy Maranges and roguish Dennis Grabowski explore the question in their trademark waggishly intellectual styles.
At the most fundamental level, an economy is (or ought to be) an aggregate of the interactions between producers and consumers, suppliers and demanders. Each ought to perform his end of the transaction faithfully and as promised, and we should expect no more or less. An economy grows as this aggregate does. In order for a country to consume more, it must produce more or (as the rise of China shows) cede power and autonomy to other entities. In the same way, an individual must produce at least as much value as he consumes, or he will eternally be at the mercy of others. Everything someone consumes, someone else first produces. In this respect first and foremost, as production is the a priori foundation of consumption, producers bear a greater moral responsibility for ensuring an ethical, functioning economy. Economic transactions function morally on several levels: in what they serve, whom they serve, and how they serve.
First, there exist intrinsically immoral products. We can debate which products these are, and certainly readers of different political persuasions will disagree on whether, for example, an abortion or a weapon of war is one of these products, but clearly products of this sort exist in some form or another. The producer of these, regardless of the market or demand, bears complete responsibility for them; without performers of abortions or purveyors of weapons, neither would exist. Certainly, the Church recognizes the culpability of the consumer (an unfortunately stern and cold term, but an economically correct one) of an abortion, but this is at best equally grave and not more so. In fact, the producer of an intrinsically evil product can never be less responsible for this evil than the consumer.
One imagines that the administration has further aspirations for the Notre Dame Forum than only debating who bears greater responsibility for an abortion; products that do not end lives also have a moral dimension. Those who first framed the tragedy of the commons could not have imagined the global scale it would one day reach; producers use public goods in every step of production that must be accounted for. Consumers have, in the last decade or so, begun demanding environmentally conscious products, a step in the right direction. The Prius, for example, will never be viable as a purely economic product (the additional cost eats up a decade or more of saved gas money), yet its booming popularity demonstrates that consumers take an interest in stewardship. As the hidden costs of producing the batteries and the electricity on the grid have come to light, even the environmental impact of the Prius has come into question. In this case, Toyota bears the moral responsibility for the hidden costs, and it illustrates the point that even the most environmentally conscious consumer must choose from the limited options put forward by producers. If producers fail to produce responsible products, consumers cannot consume them. Perhaps the Prius would not exist without consumers demanding it; it could not exist without producers to provide it. Without consumers, any product is improbable; without producers, a product is impossible.
The relationship between production and consumption evolves most dynamically at the point of innovation, and here the curious student finds the most telling examples. Supply can never completely satisfy demand. Economists primarily wrestle with how to satisfy unlimited want with limited resources, and (potential) consumers will always demand that which does not (yet) exist. Often, producers foresee a demand before consumers do; how many of us have proposed an idea to our peers who responded, “That would be so useful!”? Any one of several products might satisfy my need for hydration; I only demand the one which best satisfies that need. If free markets are to solve the challenges posed by the modern world, producers must act first to provide innovative solutions that fill these needs in a moral way. As long as consumers demand an amoral (as opposed to immoral) product, fulfilling that demand in a moral way falls to producers. Ultimately, demand will always exist; only producers have the power to control the way in which that demand is met. A moral demand without a moral product is simply a kind wish; a moral product is an effective reality.
Which bears greater responsibility in the economic chain: producer or consumer, supply or demand? We might phrase the question differently: Does the consumer demand whatever happens to be supplied, or does the producer supply that which is being demanded? Though modern consumerism blurs a distinction that was once clear, it is still true of economics that the consumer bears the much greater power – and, consequently, responsibility – in the relationship between the two.
Consider that we do not blame the executioner for the death of a man who has been sentenced to receive capital punishment. If one takes issue with state-sanctioned killings in the penal system (in light of a reasoned awareness of how the system operates), he similarly recognizes that the problem is rooted in the context of a much greater scheme of demands and responsibilities. The death was sanctioned by the judicial system, the penalty mandated by the legislature and the relevant politicians elected by the public. And it is this widest, most fundamental layer of the “responsibility pyramid” – the layer that is, in actuality, the most removed from the killing of the man on death row – in which ultimate responsibility for capital punishment lies. For it is this layer of the populace that controls which politicians are elected, what legislation passes, and what penalties are applicable in the penal system. Should the public unequivocally demand the revocation of this penalty during an election season, they would be sure to achieve their ends; likewise, if the penalty is implemented and preserved, it is the case that the public has opted in its favor.
Though pointedly political, this scenario is analogous to various free market systems. Let us consider, for example, the meat market, the ethics of which many question (for the sake of clarity, I’ll focus on the most general objection of the vegetarian – that the market’s explicit end is the killing of animals for meat). To be sure, those in the meat market – the livestock raisers and slaughterhouse owners – are the direct cause for those ills that the vegetarian decries.
But direct causation does not imply responsibility. We shan’t hold the cattle-killer any more responsible for the killing of cattle than we did the executioner for the death of the condemned man, as both individuals are – within the capacity of their occupations – little more than tools wielded by greater powers. The slaughterhouse, livestock, and packaging companies comprise the new chain of the command, but the base layer of the responsibility pyramid is still the public. The people are the ones who ultimately decide which products are manufactured; they vote with their wallets, and only those companies who carefully heed their constituents will find success.
A simple thought experiment reveals as much: Consider a scenario in which all of those companies that currently make up the meat market are shut down (large-scale supply is ended), and another in which all humans are “converted” to vegetarianism (demand is ended). In the first scenario, new companies – new tools (albeit self-serving ones)- would be established to fulfill the demands of the consumers. The second scenario would, however, result in the effective end of the meat industry. The vegetarian is better served by changing the hearts and minds of consumers than he is by affecting corporations in the meat market, as the power to achieve his ends (and the responsibility for failing to) is overwhelmingly concentrated in this former group.
There exists some concern over the process of production, and it is here, as this author believes, that the producer bears its greatest share of responsibility. It is safe to say, however, that those markets relevant to our democracy are increasingly transparent – concerned consumers have access to infinitely more information about how products are being made than they did a century ago, in the industrial period marked by Sinclair’s whistle-blowing novel The Jungle. Consumers are increasingly demanding higher ethical standards of their producers, and recent advertising trends that focus on environmental benefit (e.g. the “go green” slogan) and charitable profit donations (e.g. the “red campaign”) evidence this notion.
More importantly, consumers, fully aware of the power that they possess to mold markets to certain standards of ethical sufficiency, have established norms in the form of laws. These laws span all markets, and include checks on child labor, unfair wages, unsafe production, and unsafe products. The examples used at the beginning of our discussion serve our current discourse well, then, as they illustrate that consumers can, in their dual roles as citizens wielding political power and as knowledgeable consumers in the possession of economic means, affect the ethical standards of the companies they support, and even the ones that they do not. More importantly, though, is the notion that consumers ought to imbue producers with such standards, for with great power comes great responsibility, and consumers possess muc