The New Economics

This was a piece that I wrote back in July of 2015, but which never made it past the “editing” stage. In light of the election, and some of President-Elect Trump’s populist appeals during the campaign season, I am curious as to whether or not the situation that I am describing will change:

Quinten Massijs, The Moneylender and his Wife (1514)
Quinten Massijs, The Moneylender and His Wife (1514)

There was a time, not long ago, in which liberals could be counted on to defend the rights of workers, just as conservatives would the rights of business owners.

Those days are over.

In the politics of the new economics, the rights of both workers and owners are subordinated to the rights (and whims) of consumers. To the extent that this shift represents a coherent economic ideology, it could be expressed as “I need this, so you need to give it to me,” or “I want this, and can afford it, so you must sell it to me.” Or more succinctly: the customer is always right.

For conservatives, this shift has been largely a rhetorical one. The same policies are being promoted, but the “businesses should be free to produce more” rhetoric has been switched out for “consumers should be free to purchase more” language. National Review’s recent editorial denouncing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, for example, argues that that the real challenge facing the world is “the familiar problem of the organization of capital, balancing production and consumption, and assigning relative weight to a very large and diverse array of possible public and private goods.”

While the problem may be familiar, the answer was less so. Instead of arguing for the rights of businesses to maximize production, the National Review editors argued for the rights of consumers to maximize consumption. Indeed, they went so far as to say that the “rich world should indeed feel itself morally obliged to help the world’s poor” to “develop their economies, along lines the pope rejects, to enable higher levels [of] consumption — of the sort the pope criticizes.” Fresh avenues are taken to arrive at familiar, even predictable, conclusions.

The embrace of consumerism has been more dramatic on the left, where it has frequently meant the outright abandonment and betrayal of workers when their rights prove inconvenient to consumers. Here, both the arguments and the conclusions have changed, often quite dramatically. Take, for example, the question of conscience clauses. Should a Christian working in a hospital be forced to participate in morally-objectionable procedures like abortion and emergency contraception? Apparently so, if consumers demand it. While Attorney General of Massachusetts, Martha Coakley famously referred to these (inaccurately) as “services that are required under the law and under Roe vs. Wade,” and concluded that “the law says that people are allowed to have that,” so “if you can have religious freedom,” you “probably shouldn’t work in an emergency room.”

Even the American Civil Liberties Union favors setting aside these civil liberties when they inconvenience consumers. Catherine Weiss, the ACLU’s “reproductive freedom project” director, went before Congress to argue against proposed conscience clause legislation. She argued that the Constitution neither required nor forbade such clauses, and proposed the standard that “a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist who cannot in good conscience participate in abortions or contraceptive services should be allowed to opt out, so long as the patient is ensured safe, timely, and financially feasible alternative access to treatment.” In this view, the consciences and rights of individual medical professionals are to be set aside, not only when it threatens the health of patients, but when it inconveniences their schedules or pocketbooks.

Nor is it as easy as “staying out of the emergency room” and doctor’s office and pharmacy. Florists like Barronelle Stutzman, chapel owners like Donald and Evelyn Knapp, bakers like Jack Phillips, and photographers like Elaine Huguenin are quickly discovering that their moral objections to gay marriage can land them in serious legal trouble. Each of these cases has involved, not a business refusing to serve homosexual customers, but businesses and individuals refusing to work same-sex weddings. Stutzman’s lawsuit, for example, centered around her refusal to assist in the preparations of the gay wedding of two of her long-time customers.

And the rationale in each case has been similar: the same-sex couple can afford the goods and services, so businesses and individuals have to provide them, even if they’re morally opposed. After Lana Rusev politely refused to serve as wedding planner for Melissa McCord’s lesbian wedding, McCord responded (to the media, naturally): “Don’t throw your belief in my face that you won’t do it because of what we are. My money is just as green as everybody else’s.”

That’s what this is about: consumers, in this case, same-sex fiancées, who think that their money should be able to overcome the moral objections of those around them. As Crystal Allen and Kenyata White, who unsuccessfully attempted to force Reverend Susan Latimer to minister their wedding, explained: “We’re not saying they have to love us. They don’t even have to condone what we do or who we are. They don’t even have to have fun. Just set up our wedding.”

Karl Marx dubbed this sort of objectification of labor and laborers “alienation” or “estranged labor.” In an 1844 essay on the subject, he explained: “The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” It would be hard to find a starker example of this than an opponent of same sex marriage being forced, by law, to participate in the preparations for a gay wedding.

Perhaps the most telling example of the shift towards consumerism has been the HHS mandate. On paper, this seemed poised to be a classic fight between the rights of employers and employees. After all, the question revolved around whether or not employers had to include contraception coverage in employee plans. But that’s not how the pro-HHS case was argued in the public square. The poster child for the movement was Sandra Fluke, a 30 year-old Georgetown law student, who argued that the school’s health care insurance “communicates to female students that our school doesn’t understand our needs. These are not feelings that male fellow students experience, and they’re not burdens that male students must shoulder.”

It’s hard to imagine that students at a Catholic law school would think they could get free contraception through the school’s insurance, but Fluke claimed that they “expected that when 94 percent of students opposed the policy, the university would respect our choices regarding insurance,” since the school wouldn’t be directly subsidizing it. The idea that anyone might, for moral reasons, actually stand up to the demands of consumers was simply unfathomable to Fluke, which is how she ended up testifying against the school before Congress.

This is the political-economic question that we are ultimately facing: should consumers be allowed to force individuals and businesses to cooperate with morally-objectionable acts, simply because money talks? There was a time in the recent past that liberals in particular would have said no, when they stood strong against economic alienation. Perhaps they would rediscover these principles if the objected-to wedding were, say, Confederate-themed, rather than gay, or if medical professionals were being forced to assist in female genital mutilation rather than abortion. But until that day, it’s beginning to look like the law will enforce the customer’s right to be always right, even when he’s morally wrong.

23 Comments

  1. You notice, by the bye, that those who call us vicious haters are obvious liars. Would you eat anything made by a vicious hater? I wouldn’t. As for forcing someone to bake something for me against his will — well, I wouldn’t eat that if I believe him to be a vicious hater — or an ordinary person — or even a relatively good but not perfect person. Only if I believed him to be a paragon of virtue, patience, and forbearance would I eat it. No one sane would do anything else

    Yet these couples go to force someone to bake for them, and then eat it. It shows that they really believe us to be paragons of virtue.

  2. I would like to propose a different view. If businesses open their door to the public, they can’t discriminate. They are making their goods available to the public and by doing this they have to understand that the makeup of the public is diverse. If gays are protected by law, then they are entitled to demand goods and services that business owners provide to others. Our laws view LGBTQ issue as a Civil Rights issue. Not unlike Rosa Parks who was not allowed to sit at the front of the bus, or black people refused service at the coffee counter. To make an understatement, the issue is as complex as each one of us is. We don’t have to accept what we find morally objective, instead we should strengthen our convictions and our witness. Bakers and other services conversely have the right to put crosses on the wall, pictures of Christ, etc., just like my nail shop has a little statue with food and flowers for Buddha. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to frequent the place. The majority of the secular Left believes we Christians are “deplorable.” Witnessing our faith in kindness will go very far in living our baptismal mission to evangelize.
    Having said this, moral consciencious objectors to war, filling a prescription, performing a sex change, or any other act that is against the tenents of their faith are rights that are protected.

    1. Why not?

      It’s not as if they could force the public in their doors if their customers want to discriminate. Why should they forfeit their rights to association? Would you compel people to buy from shopkeepers on the grounds they have to understand that the makeup of the public is diverse?

    2. It seems to me there’s a distinction between discrimination based on what people are and what they do. The discrimination against Rosa Parks was purely based on what she was, black. If a baker refused to provide a cake for a gay wedding, it’s not because of who happens to be buying it, rather because of what it’s being used for. It could be viewed as a service he chooses not to provide. The same would apply to performing abortions or sex change operations, or prescribing artificial contraceptives…they’d be services that are not offered to anyone. What I see happening is conflation between what people are (same sex attacted or confused about their own sexuality) and what they chose to do about it. On what basis should people be compelled to support what others chose to do?

  3. It’s called Civil Rights legislation. A government empowered to compel private businesses to deal fairly (as the government of the time defines it) with a protected group by necessary consequence will move from group to group, protecting them, as the times change.

    If one side is a winner (the protected group) there has to be losers (i.e. white racist business owners in the 1960s).

    No one seems to mind if they are one the side of the winners. If you are on the side of the losers, well, you should get out of the way of the winners.

    No one here would reject the necessity of the 1964 Civil RIghts Act. But, be aware, once you open that can of worms how do you close it? How can we be assured the government always properly defines who ought to be the winner?

    Let me speak less vaguely and use a real-world example. My wife is from Cambodia, and she grew up there. She, obviously, was poor and disadvantaged. This earned her scholarships so she went to college for free.

    Now, pretend that my wife was the daughter of Cambodian refugees in California. Even if she worked just as hard in school, she would have never got scholarships (after all, there are already “too many” Asians in most American universities relative to their population.) In fact, colleges would have openly discriminated against her race, as it is “over-represented.”

    The way her life shaked up, my wife was literally better off being born in Cambodia than in America.

    In California, 24% of college students in the California system are white. 22% are hispanic. 35% are Asian. 11% are from foreign countries, mostly China. 4% are black. (https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/infocenter/fall-enrollment-glance)

    Is it fair that 50% of Californians are white but they make up 24% of college students? How about 14% being Asian and they make up near triple that in college students? How about Hispanics which are 26% of the population but only 22% of college students?

    As we can see, our definition of fairness (being over-represented) is not even consistent. While Asians are over-represented, whites are under-represented. Yet, Asians still have race-based admissions quotas to deal with and require higher test scores for admittance.

    This shows that Civil Rights laws, no matter how well-meaning, have one obvious flaw–someone has to define the winners and losers. This “someone” is often very inconsistent.

    God bless,
    Craig

    1. The white guilt is strong in this one. But if you had a brain you’d realize there were no white racist business owners in the 60s and it was all a Hollywood production.

  4. I grew up in Mississippi so I understand the complications of discrimination. Yet what people don’t understand about the 1960s is that those laws only related to public accommodations. They were to combat local discriminatory laws. A white person in Mississippi in the 1950s had to have separate accommodations in their place of business. Mixing wasn’t allowed even if that person believed that the was nothing wrong with mixing and as a matter of conscious believed separation was discriminatory. (Of course you could say that there were too few in any business owners who felt that way due to a deep seeded morally repugnant culture).

    In the cases you talk about today, they are also matters of conscience. Whereas a business in the past had a set of business ethics and guidelines, today if those ethics are contrary to the status quo, people cry foul. Tyson chicken has Christian business ethics and includes ministers on staff and Starbucks likes to promote it’s own ethics on people’s coffee cups. I used this as an example to someone that it’s normal in business. The person thanked me for mentioning Tyson chicken and said they wouldn’t shop there again because of their business ethics. Naturally a consumer is free to do so, but this is fundamentally different than attempting to shut Tyson Chicken down because they have Christian ethics wrapped into their business ones.

    I don’t buy Starbucks (I don’t drink coffee anyway so it’s not a problem) because they are overpriced and way too politically
    proselytizing for my taste. This doesn’t mean I think the government should restrict how they operate their business based on ethics. Yet this is what many detractors want for other businesses.

    When you can’t make a living according to your morals and ethics than we have a problem. I’m kind of libertarian about anti-discrimination laws because I think they create too much conflict with conscious objectors. I certainly wouldn’t patron a restaurant operated according to the business ethics of the KKK, but I don’t think the government should be telling people who to serve. Eventually the restaurant would go out of business because very few people would want to eat there. Persuasion is far better than bludgeoning people when it comes to the rule of law in my opinion.

  5. Great article. I think this consumerism is also wrapped up in relativism. There is no objective truth, no objective morals and definitely no God. Therefore, rights come from popular opinion. And if the majority of people want more stuff, they have a right to get it.

  6. Affirmative Action is discrimination against whites and ABS completely rejects the so-called Civil Rights legislation. For starters, civil rights ought refer to the citizen’s rights against the totalitarian state not favoring one race over another but Black Run America is a feature of this so called society.

    The theft of labor via state sponsored usury has been a hall mark of American Capitalism. Vix Pervenit remains catholic doctrine

    Oppression of the poor is accomplished by massive immigration which destroys the wage scale.

    Of course the views of ABS are controversial and ss I will go and fetch a few links as a primer to right thinking about our political economy

  7. Each of these cases has involved, not a business refusing to serve homosexual customers, but businesses and individuals refusing to work [at? for?] same-sex weddings.

    And what is the sophistic difference between the two?

    If a baker refused to provide a cake for a gay wedding, it’s not because of who happens to be buying it, rather because of what it’s being used for.

    It’s the same thing. Selling the cake does not mean endorsing gay marriage. Selling condoms and contraceptives does not mean endorsing irresponsible sex, free sex, gay sex etc. If a pharmacy owner is prude enough (a hard-core Catholic or Puritan Protestant) to refuse selling condoms and contraceptives, go find another job. Selling guns does not mean endorsing mass murder. Selling computer does not mean endorsing hacking. Selling booze does not mean endorsing alcoholism. Selling Bibles (usually) does not mean endorsing misogynistic behaviour. It doesn’t even mean you believe in the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Bhagavad-Gita. If you have a product, you must sell it to everyone. Yes, it is their right.

    That’s when economy (which the baker didn’t care much about) and law converge (I guess she didn’t care much about the law, either). Yes, all of you, if you open a business, you have to serve all people.

    Suppose the gay couple had lied, saying that what they actually needed was a birthday cake. Also suppose that they had asked for a heterosexual couple to order the cake. Finally, suppose that the baker had given some excuse besides being against gay marriage. There would probably be no fuss about it.

    “I certainly wouldn’t patron a restaurant operated according to the business ethics of the KKK, but I don’t think the government should be telling people who to serve. Eventually the restaurant would go out of business because very few people would want to eat there.”

    The government (and society) tells that KKK-owned restaurants, if they exist at all, must cater to blacks, greens, and trans-gender aliens from Kolob. No, market laws, sometimes, are not enough. I bet the publicity of the baker’s refusal to serve a gay couple has brought about a good financial reward. Anti-gay activists are more than willing to pity her and buy more cakes. Just like a KKK-owned restaurant would be filled with KKK sympathizers. A moral “justification” not to serve one kind of people (Muslims, gay couples) is morally equivalent as the moral “justification” not to serve other kinds of people (Satanists, blacks, Russians). I wish the baker were boycotted to such an extent that she would suffer dire economic consequences until she came around. Then she would make that literally God-damned cake (I guess Yahweh has damned that marriage, don’t tell me you don’t believe He/She/It didn’t). It’s just a cake. It’s not an abortion, a killer-for-hire job, prostitution etc. She’s not being forced to do anything illegal. If people in her State or in the US think that she can do what she did, and that she doesn’t have to treat people fairly regardless of sexual option, then vote for a majority of state/federal representatives, so that they can change YOUR law. A law is not invalid because you have moral objection to it.

    1. If you were owned a construction business and the government wanted to hire you to build gas chambers, you’d be obligated to honor that and would do so with a clear conscience regardless of how the government intended to use them, so long as it was “legal”?

        1. That’s not the point. I understand your point to be that it doesn’t matter with regard to your conscience what someone else intends to do with the product you produce for them. The gas chamber analogy was intended to illustrate my point by exaggerating the degree. You can call it ludicrous, but the principle is basically the same. I didn’t cite Nazi Germany, but it certainly illustrates how slippery is the slope when it comes to compromising one’s conscience.

      1. Scott, seems like mumbo jumbo to me. An attempt to protect people from being offended would be like, “this cook is offended by a request from a gay couple to make a cake for a gay wedding, so she has the right not only not to make the cake, but also to brag about it and make a fuss out of it and publicize her anti-gay agenda and how she was offended and how she fought against the pro-gay, anti-Yahweh, secularist status quo”. She was offended, the gay couple was offended, so what?

      2. John, comparing a civil marriage certificate and a marriage cake with

        a) supporting religious gay marriage;
        b) gas chambers
        c) consumer rights

        is ludicrous.

        Would you care to explain the reason behind you comparison? Is gay marriage the moral equivalent of gasing Jews and Gypsies?

        1. Dismissing something as ‘ludicrous’ is just a way of dodging an answer. Moral equivalence speaks to degree. Degree is not an excuse for compromising conscience, just a measure of how badly one fails.

    2. “…if you open a business, you have to serve all people.”

      Actually no, you don’t. I’ve seen numerous restaurants donning a sign at the entrance saying “Right of admission reserved”, and I know plenty of business people who have declined doing business with various prospects, on a wide variety of products and services, for various reasons.

      The rule in business is that you enter into a contract once the parties to that contract reaches consensus. This rule applies informally too, where no actual documents need signing (tacit agreements). If no consensus is reached, there is no contract, and nobody can force any service provider to perform.

      This ties in neatly to another legal concept which is somewhat related: freedom of association. I don’t need to befriend anyone I don’t want to. I don’t have to mingle with anyone I don’t want to.

      This is libertarian freedom, plain and simple.

  8. The government needs to get back to protecting unalienable rights as opposed to what seems to be an attempt to protect people from being offended.
    So what are unalienable rights? Those rights that come with being a person, they are not granted by any other person and require no action by another for you to posses. With great wisdom our nations Declaration of Independence mentions “certain unailienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The authors acknowledged that these rights come from our “Creator” and that the government is bound to “secure” them.
    There is no part of unailienable rights that requires action from another other than respect.
    If our government wants to provide rights there is no telling what we may be required, by law, to do next to provide for the latest dreamt up “right”. We also have no guarantee that rights currently provided will not be deemed politically incorrect and therefore revoked.
    We cannot rely on or expect the government to declare what is moral which seems to be what is happening with the various rights movements, history has proved that to be a dangerous strategy.

  9. Mr. Joe Heschmeyer,

    I’m a new reader to your blog (I only recently found out about it from a Catholic Answers show you did earlier in the year) and I find fault with several of your arguments in this particular entry but I don’t know if that might be just because of how you have decided to define the role of consumers. In the blog entry you state that the problem is,

    “In the politics of the new economics, the rights of both workers and owners are subordinated to the rights (and whims) of consumers.”

    The problem, as I see it, with that statement is that, if not taken in the right context, it is at odds with the teaching of Adam Smith, the 18th century father of modern economics, who said,

    “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”

    And with Frederic Bastiat, the 19th century champion of free market economies, who said,

    “Treat all economic questions from the viewpoint of the consumer, for the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race”

    The context that is different between Smith & Bastiat and you is that Smith and Bastiat would argue that no consumer has a right to any property of the producer, that any exchange between the consumer and producer has to be a free exchange between the two parties. For that is the way in which true wealth is created, when parties freely exchange items of value such that both parties value the item they obtain more then the item they are giving up.

    What I’m wondering is if your statement is also meant to include the teachings of both Smith and Bastiat, which would imply that their teachings on the role of producers and consumers is also incorrect.

    1. James,

      I’m not positive that I track your train of thought. What in this article would be a critique of two parties voluntarily exchanging goods and services for money? The kind of consumerism that I’m critiquing strikes me as diametrically opposed to what Smith & Bastiat argue for… for the exact reasons that you lay out in the last two paragraphs.

      In saying that, I’m not blanket endorsing everything Smith or Bastiat argued, just saying that I didn’t have either of them in view, nor do I see an obvious reason that the critiques in this post would apply to them.

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