One of the curiousities of intellectual battles is the ability of the intelligentsia of one school to retrench and come back, using the vocabulary popularized by another set entirely to argue the opposite point. (A curiousity because one would hope that the relatively clever would steer clear of rhetorical devices in favor of clarity and making real progress towards understanding).
Free-marketers in the nineteenth century, then known as “liberals,” became popular with the working classes and the poor because of their support for the abolition of the Corn Laws and other benefits of free trade; economic interventionists tried to capitalize on this popularity by calling themselves “liberals,” and today the original reference of the term is obscured, particularly in the United States.
Another more complicated example: The success of free marketers in demonstrating that competition and choice serves consumers; offering empirical support for the fundamental point that contracts are a basic building block of a prosperous economic order. Today advocates of regulation build on this legacy by borrowing the language of consumer choice to attack the ordinary contract.
The Wall Street Journal Europe explores a variation on this argument concerning the iPhone. Kyle Wingfield notes, “Yes, consumers benefit from economic efficiencies. But it cannot be said that economic efficiencies are gained simply by creating circumstances that are attractive to consumers.” And goes on to make some interesting observations about the leftist allegiance to labor, rather in tension with their stance on consumers.
Rather like the feminist argument that all sex is rape, the implications of the regulatory argument that any number of commercial contracts are “forced” on consumers, that consumers have no real choices, are ultimately both ridiculous and appalling. Ridiculous, because each argument turns so far away from real differences in how consensual sex and rape (or buying a cell phone and being mugged) are perceived by real people as to be completely irrelevant. And appalling, because of the level of intervention with people’s lives that each potentially justifies, a vast exercise of vast power in the name of equalizing power.
Yet the arguments live on. For more on cell phone contracts, I have a discussion in a new paper published by Goldwater, on Arizona’s proposed cell phone consumer bill of rights. Enjoy.