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Monday, July 14, 2014
The Sovereign Consumer
The characteristic feature of modern capitalism is mass production of goods destined for consumption by the masses. The result is a tendency towards a continuous improvement in the average standard of living, a progressing enrichment of the many. Capitalism deproletarianizes the “common man” and elevates him to the rank of a “bourgeois.”
On the market of a capitalistic society the common man is the sovereign consumer whose buying or abstention from buying ultimately determines what should be produced and in what quantity and quality. Those shops and plants which cater exclusively or predominantly to the wealthier citizens’ demand for refined luxuries play merely a subordinate role in the economic setting of the market economy. They never attain the size of big business. Big business always serves—directly or indirectly—the masses.
It is this ascension of the multitude in which the radical social change brought about by the Industrial Revolution consists. Those underlings who in all the preceding ages of history had formed the herds of slaves and serfs, of paupers and beggars, became the buying public, for whose favor the businessmen canvass. They are the customers who are “always right,” the patrons who have the power to make poor suppliers rich and rich suppliers poor.
There are in the fabric of a market economy not sabotaged by the nostrums of governments and politicians no grandees and squires keeping the populace in submission, collecting tributes and imposts, and gaudily feasting while the villeins must put up with the crumbs. The profit system makes those men prosper who have succeeded in filling the wants of the people in the best possible and cheapest way. Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers. The capitalists lose their funds as soon as they fail to invest them in those lines in which they satisfy best the demands of the public. In a daily repeated plebiscite in which every penny gives a right to vote the consumers determine who should own and run the plants, shops and farms. The control of the material means of production is a social function, subject to the confirmation or revocation by the sovereign consumers.
This is what the modern concept of freedom means. Every adult is free to fashion his life according to his own plans. He is not forced to live according to the plan of a planning authority enforcing its unique plan by the police, i.e., the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion. What restricts the individual’s freedom is not other people’s violence or threat of violence, but the physiological structure of his body and the inescapable nature‑given scarcity of the factors of production. It is obvious that man’s discretion to shape his fate can never trespass the limits drawn by what are called the laws of nature.
To establish these facts does not amount to a justification of the individual’s freedom from the point of view of any absolute standards or metaphysical notions. It does not express any judgment on the fashionable doctrines of the advocates of totalitarianism, whether “right” or “left.” It does not deal with their assertion that the masses are too stupid and ignorant to know what would serve best their “true” needs and interests and need a guardian, the government, lest they hurt themselves. Neither does it enter into a scrutiny of the statements that there are supermen available for the office of such guardianship.