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Again Defending Consumer Sovereignty

Here’s a letter to my daily correspondent Nolan McKinney:

Mr. McKinney:

You find Pierre Lemieux’s argument (to which I linked this morning) in favor of consumer sovereignty “juvenile” and “unpersuasive.”

If you’re not persuaded by Pierre’s mature and well-reasoned post, there’s nothing that I can write to convince you that, because consumption is the ultimate goal of all economic activity, we as producers have no ethical or economic claim to be protected by the state from changes in the ways that we as consumers spend our money.

But I can’t avoid reacting to your observation that “many workers value their jobs for reasons independent of what their wages let them consume.” I agree that many jobs have value for workers beyond the incomes that they pay. But those aspects of a job that a worker values independently of his or her monetary income are aspects of a job that, for that worker, are items of consumption. I value the intellectual stimulation, the satisfaction of mentoring students, and the (undeserved but nevertheless real) prestige that comes with my job as a college professor. Yet I have no right to consume these things at other people’s expense.

Suppose that on-line education threatens to destroy my job. Were I successfully to lobby government to protect my job by punitively taxing consumers of on-line education, the government would compel other people to pay for the benefits that I consume through my job. That is, the government would artificially restrict the freedom of other people to consume as they wish in order to subsidize my ability to consume as I wish. That would be wrong.

It’s important to recognize that, if on-line education were destroying my job, I have the option of keeping my job by offering to work at a lower wage. Were I to do so, the benefits that I consume by continuing to hold my economics-professor job would be paid for by the person who should pay for this consumption – namely, me. That would be the ethical outcome.

When workers demand protection from competition on the grounds that their jobs have a great deal of value to them beyond the salaries that they earn, I frankly don’t believe them. The reason for my disbelief is that these workers almost never attempt to keep their jobs by offering to take pay cuts. These workers, in short, reveal through their actions that the overwhelming reason why they work is to earn income. And because income is valued only because it will eventually be spent on consumption items, these workers reveal through their actions that, in our economic lives, work and production are means while consumption is the ultimate end.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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