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Good Enough for Me

June 19, 2000

Time and again, critics of the free market label certain choices of consumers "irrational." The Center for Science as a Public Nuisance… sorry, I mean the Center for Science in the Public Interest... recently called for a junk-food tax, the proceeds of which would fund, "frequent, hard-hitting messages [that] can change Americans' behavior."

If I'm eating poorly, CPSI feels that it is a good idea for money forcibly extracted from me to be used to badger me about… eating better!

You see, Michael F. Jacobson, Executive Director of the lobbying organization, knows what other Americans should eat—what is healthiest for them. It is inconceivable to him that others might choose to value a different end more highly—such as the enjoyment of food, or minimizing the time spent worrying about food.

Similarly, a very bright man I know recently asked me why people buy athletic shoes endorsed by famous athletes. "Do they think," he wondered, "the fact that Michael Jordan endorsed these shoes will make them play basketball any better?"

Some free-market economists worry about "problems" like this. If consumers are choosing a shoe based on an advertising campaign featuring a certain athlete, or people are eating the "wrong" foods, it will give ammunition to anti-market thinkers such as John Kenneth Galbraith, who feel the consumers are simple dupes in the hand of advertisers.

These economists spend a great deal of time attempting to show that consumers' choices are "rational." One line taken is to insist that these campaigns are educating the consumers, who after a learning process chose their Michael Jordan shoes.

This view is best refuted not by arguing that consumers are "learning" when they choose Michael Jordan sneakers over Karl Malone sneakers, or over generic brands that are exactly the same (sans name) as Michael Jordan sneakers. Fantasy is unlikely to be a successful technique for defending the market.

Instead, proponents of freedom should answer with a resounding "So what?" So, consumers don't always choose their sneakers based on the criteria that Galbraith feels they should be using—so what? They still choose, and they choose based on the criteria that are important to them. In fact, what many people are buying when they buy, for instance, a sneaker, is an element of an identity.

Consumers may have, as their chosen end, a particular image of themselves in mind. Part of that image may involve the personal style of some celebrity, such as Jordan. They buy a certain product not on its technical merits but on its ability to move them closer to that image. Why should Galbraith, or anyone else, have any say in this process?

The key to understanding this issue is to realize, with Mises, that there is no objective means by which to judge some ends as being better than others are. In Theory and History he says:


Judgments of value are voluntaristic. They express feelings, tastes, or preferences of the individual who utters them. With regard to them there cannot be any question of truth or falsity. They are ultimate and not subject to any proof or evidence.


This has not stopped countless philosophers, economists, "social scientists," and others from attempting such proofs. No one has ever succeeded.

Among libertarians, this urge has been especially strong among the followers of Ayn Rand. She was, however, simply one in a long line of thinkers who "demonstrated" that his or her value system was the correct one and could be arrived at by pure ratiocination. Not one of them, however, has ever been able to get even a large minority of mankind to follow their system.

Such "demonstrations" are easily refuted by simply saying, "I disagree." If the disagreeable person does not accept the initial assumption of ends that the value system presupposes, the argument has reached a standstill from which there is no way, by reasoning alone, to move either party. This has been the terminus of all such attempts to prove a system of values.

The effort to create an objective system of libertarian ethics that is universally valid founders on some people’s refusal to accept human freedom as an ultimate end. To those who refuse, instead choosing, perhaps, equality, or the fate of the South African giant sea slug, there is nothing more to say.

From the opposite perspective, University of Illinois professor Stanley Fish challenges the classical liberal world view by arguing that its tolerance only extends to other tolerant views, and that there is no ultimate, objective basis for labeling it superior.

That is true. To have a complete picture of the truth, however, we need to add that classical liberalism is the only view that makes possible the worldwide cooperation of all people under the division of labor, and their continually increasing prosperity. Classical liberalism does not deny the possibility that some system of revealed ethics is ultimately correct. It merely asserts that mankind has never reached a general consensus on this issue, and that it is unlikely that it ever will.

To someone who aims for the impoverishment or annihilation of mankind there is no objective argument against their attempt to implement a worldwide socialist or theocratic state. But for most of us, this pragmatic aspect of the classical liberal world-view is good enough.


Gene Callahan is a programmer and writer.

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