The Little Lie at the Heart of Consumer Choice

30 04 2013

Bless Steve Jobs. I mean, I hate his horrible, anti-competitive company, their fetish-generating products and a corporate policy that seems to suborn inhumane working conditions.

But I love him for at least one thing: he was either so in love with his counterfeit counter-culture persona, or so unawares of the governing philosophy of American capitalism, that he let this gem slip when asked how much “market research was conducted to guide Apple” in its production processes:

“None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

You can hear the neoliberals and “Solutionist” whackos of Silicon Valley jumping up off their Aerons: Shhhhhh! Shut up Steve! If consumers don’t really have all that much meaningful agency in “directing” corporations on how to act, the entire edifice of post-Friedman economic and governance policy crumbles!

Granted, Jobs was working in a very specialized sub-category of consumer electronics. But Jobs’ point was essentially a correct one: people will consumer what they’re told they need to consumer, whether they need to or not. Hayek’s pithy slogan that profit is just a signal that you’re serving people well is little more than that–a pithy slogan. History is littered with billion dollar industries growing up around essentially useless products solving a “problem” which does not exist. When Lysol began shaming women into poisoning themselves and made a shitload of money, they weren’t “serving” anybody “well”–other than their shareholders, of course. They were manufacturing a need–creating a want–that they were simultaneously satisfying (and even then, not doing so particularly well). That people want and consume products is a perfectly vacuous type of signal.


When Lysol convinces women they need to mildly poison themselves or risk humiliation, then a competitor comes in and more mildly poisons them for a few pennies less, the proposition that some type of important efficiency has been served is ridiculous. It’s like if you got into a heated debate with someone about the superior benefits of a Westeros governed by the Lannisters and their conservative but stable fiscal policies or the Starks and their decentralized approach. Or publishing a paper on the best antibiotics to use when your unicorn gets a fever. It’s all made up nonsense. You can only win such an argument in a meaningless way.

The consumer choice between multiple products that are not only not really necessary but possibly harmful is a fine thing to have, but can hardly be a justification for significant public policies. Justifying income inequality, “flexible” workplaces that abjure worker democracy, the deterioration of the regulatory state, and the general immiseration of labor, are a lot of policy choices that all revolve around the supposed burgeoning of “consumer power” and consumer welfare. This is particularly true (as I’m going to discuss in an upcoming article) where there are assymmetries of information and increasing consolidation of competition. When the regulatory state deteriorates and producers are not required to provide useful, truthful, or relevant information, the notion of consumer power collapses completely.

Apple, a company with an explicit philosophy of “don’t really care at all what consumers want,” has more cash reserves than the entire sequester. That should tell us something about the lie at the heart of consumer choice: consumers don’t really have all that much agency, either individually or collectively. What power they do have, is the power to choose between ultimately meaningless choices.



3 responses

1 05 2013

Very interesting. Are you smart enough to know what you want to consume? Who else could be? How do you suggest “we” resolve information asymmetries better?

21 06 2013

Why don’t you consume a space ship so you can go back in time to Soviet Russia? Typical Union boss.

23 04 2015
Money = Carbon Footprint | Zero Waste Millennial

[…] It presupposes the existence of a power that we don’t even have. I like the beginning of this blog post by Ramsin Canon, which really illustrates how much product manufacturers and marketers actually hate the people […]

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