Ethics and power in the markeplace

Yesterday it occurred to me that free-market capitalism requires the consumer to be the only ethical player in a rigged, marginalizing system. (I know, dear leftist friends, I’m late to the table again.) Free-market capitalism, with its mantra that “the market will work it out”, requires the consumer to play watchdog over companies and corporations, shaming or approving of them with her dollars. If a company has unethical practices, well then, consumers shouldn’t shop there! The company’s prosperity and very existence becomes a fault of the consumer. There is no demand that the company face initial limitations based on the ethics of business practice, no demand that companies be limited in the very way they are allowed to set up their business and processes for purely ethical reasons.

This becomes all the more ridiculous considering that most companies and corporations have far more resources and power at their hands than individual consumers. Often, they have more than the aggregate of all their consumers. Who has the power to make truly sweeping, ethical decisions? Corporations. Who are not held accountable to do so? Corporations.

For some reason, we give giant corporations the freedom to be unethical, all in the name of maintaining the freedom of the market. As if that freedom weren’t itself a deeply ethical concern, as if our avowed ethical freedoms don’t themselves come with caveats and limitations and designated no-fly zones. Why do we give those in power the freedom to be unethical? Aren’t those in power the very entities or people who should be held most accountable? We put so much pressure on the relatively powerless consumer to hold corporations to account, to hold their feet to the ethical fire, when that responsibility simply cannot be wielded effectively considering on the current wealth disparity in the US.

It is hard to be an ethical consumer in this day and age. There are so many bad practices: some that are doing irreparable damage to the environment; some that are using cheap labor and exploiting the poor and disadvantaged; some that are simply finding loopholes to avoid paying taxes (hello, Apple) and pass the financial responsibility of the country down to the (lowly) consumer. In every purchase, the consumer is at an epistemological and economic disadvantage. Walmart is an appalling company and I will never shop there again, but it is affordable and some people need that price point. Amazon is also terrible, but I shop there sometimes because it is the cheapest way to send friends and family gifts. (Living in Hawaii does have its disadvantages.) We are limited as ethical consumers by what we can afford.

An economic system just cannot be considered ethical if the disadvantaged party has the lion’s share of ethical expectations and responsibilities, and the party in power has so little.

In general, I find I am buying much less now because I want to put my dollars into good (preferably local) companies, but that goodness seems to always come with a higher price attached. I am happy to buy less, and willing to make the minimalist choices that allow me to put my money into causes, companies, and people I trust and know to be good. But I can’t do it perfectly or for everything. I don’t have the funds or the time. I know there are many other people in my same boat, and it’s tragic that the very corporations putting us out to sea are those who never have to face the choice to sink or sail based on the question that should be framing everything: “What is the right thing to do?”

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