Too many people have a naïve belief in the freedom of the market. Big companies like Starbucks do not compete fairly with their smaller rivals but seek to eradicate them.
There’s nothing like starting the New Year with a new controversy. My recent essay, “Finding Freedom in Your Pocket,” prompted a scathing response from one reader who derided my concerns about the rising power of the United Nations as “a little ridiculous” and who dismissed my belief in small business and localism on the grounds that such beliefs had been “completely destroy[ed]” by an episode of South Park (no, I’m not making this up!).
I’ll get to the alleged wisdom of South Park shortly. First, however, I would like to address the idea that my concerns about the power of the United Nations are “ridiculous.” Here is how my interlocutor addresses the issue:
Joseph Pearce likely makes a good point regarding undemocratic centralization when it comes to the E.U. However, his worry over the U.N leading to global tyranny is a little ridiculous in that COP21 was agreed to by a voluntary consensus of member states and the agreement itself is strictly voluntary with other nations and non-governmental actors only having the power of moral suasion to keep nations to live up to what they’ve voluntarily agreed to.
I would argue, in response, that there is a frightening parallel between the evolution of the European Union over the past fifty years and that of the United Nations, or, at any rate, that the tyrannical rise of the former serves as a timely warning of the potential danger inherent in the rise of the latter. Let us not forget that the EU is, in theory at least, like the UN, “a voluntary consensus of member states,” even if it is, in practice, a corrupt and coercive political institution working progressively to undermine the national sovereignty and therefore freedom of its members. I recall only too well, though I was only a child at the time, that critics of the Common Market, as the EU was then called, were dismissed as being “ridiculous” for claiming that it constituted an embryonic United States of Europe. The Common Market was, we were assured, only a free trade zone and nothing more. We had nothing to worry about. Then, without any consultation with the electorate of Europe, the Common Market metamorphosed into the European Economic Community, making it a “community” and not merely a free market, and then it became simply the European Community, signifying that it was no longer only the “economic” institution that we had been told that it was; eventually it became the European Union, forcing its will and forging its union with a new single currency.
I accept, of course, that there are significant differences between the European Union and the United Nations but the fact is that the tendency of large political bodies is to seek to centralize and consolidate their power. I see no reason to believe that the UN is an exception to this rule. As the UN seeks to impose the “agreements” reached at its summits we will see that the dividing line between “moral suasion” and “political coercion” becomes very fine indeed, and, as history has shown, it is a very short leap between political coercion and political enforcement.
Now to the claim that the infallible authority of South Park “completely destroys” my arguments for localism and for small businesses. According to my interlocutor there is an episode of South Park in which a small local coffee shop is shown to serve some of the worst coffee in the world, much worse than the major chain with which it is competing, presumably meant to be Starbucks. This episode, says my interlocutor, “correctly pointed out that all the restaurant chains started out as local businesses that grew because people liked them because they served products that people enjoyed and that were consistently good.” This seems reasonable enough and might indeed be true, up to a point. It is, however, not the whole story.
I have witnessed at airports long lines of people lining up at McDonald’s for breakfast, while a kiosk selling breakfast items twenty yards away had no line whatsoever. Is this because McDonald’s offers better or healthier food? Of course not. It is because people are creatures of habit, and often bad habit, and have bought into the McDonald’s brand, expressing their loyalty to it by their willingness to line up patiently for ten minutes to be served. They have been brainwashed by the megabucks that McDonald’s spends on advertising, which is really a nice word for propaganda, and have been branded by the brand, much as cattle are branded by their owners. It is not the quest for good food that unites those in the line for McDonald’s but the herd instinct.
Is being the member of a herd, branded by our brand loyalty, a mark of freedom? Or do we express our freedom better by ignoring the propaganda and heading for the anonymous kiosk to take a look at its menu?
Another problem with my interlocutor’s position is his naïve belief in the freedom of the market. Big companies do not compete fairly with their smaller rivals but seek to eradicate them. Apart from the aforementioned power of propaganda, big companies use their so-called “economies of scale,” a euphemism for brute force, to exclude genuine free choice from the market. Thus, in the UK, until the law was changed to prevent them from doing so, the big brewing companies sought to exclude craft ales from the market because the big brewers owned most of the pubs and refused to sell the products that their customers wanted. Closer to home, a coffee shop in New York’s East Village was forced to close after Starbucks offered to pay higher rent for the space. In both cases, consumers were prevented from enjoying the products that they desired because big business had bullied their competitors out of the marketplace.
The biggest problem with my interlocutor’s position is his naïve assumption that small coffee shops produce bad coffee. As a self-confessed coffee snob, I can only say that the best way of refuting South Park’s silliness is simply to step into one of these locally-owned coffee shops and sample what they have to offer. In similar fashion, as a self-confessed ale-snob, I have absolutely no doubt that the many craft ales being produced by small brewing companies are so much better than Budweiser and other brands of mass-produced swill. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and, in this case, the proof of the argument is in the drinking.
My interlocutor concludes his comments by stating that the “South Park episode was actually a rather brilliant explanation of the positive ideals and ideas of capitalism.” This, of course, begs a host of other questions, not least of which is what we mean by capitalism. If capitalism is the ruthless manipulation of the market by the biggest companies, a sort of Nietzschean survival of the fattest, so that there are relatively few capitalists owning relatively few mega-sized companies, I suppose I might concede my interlocutor’s point. If, however, capitalism is the encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit in as many people as possible, so that the economy is ideally comprised of millions of small business owners, all working to produce quality products for their own local area, I’d say that the South Park perspective, and that of my interlocutor, is profoundly anti-capitalist. In any event, and whether we decide to call it “capitalist” or not, I will continue to spend my money on the excellent coffee and excellent ales to be found in local cafés and hostelries, and will not be joining the line outside McDonald’s or Starbucks as long as I have a choice in the matter.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.