A news report from earlier this month had all the hallmarks of becoming a major scandal when it had been shown that more than one third of all food products in Great Britain were essentially “fake”: The Guardian noted that “consumers are being sold drinks with banned flame-retardant additives, pork in beef and fake cheese”. But, contrary to the horse meat scandal, which saw weeks of public backlash, this one – although arguably much more serious – disappeared from headlines in just a couple of days (aside from an isolated addition on Februari 23rd that this is all the work of criminal gangs). Where is Britain’s fake food outrage? Is it not more disconcerting to learn we’ve been drinking flame-retardants and banned drugs (labeled as “herbal tea”), than it is to learn we’ve been eating horse instead of cow? It can be no surprise that corporations are trying to maximize profit by cutting corners, nor that government is failing to rein them in – so a much more interesting question is: why aren’t the consumers doing their job? Why don’t they seem to care?
We, the consumers, should be the most important and most powerful force in the marketplace. As it is intended, we decide where we spend our money and thus we control the fate of the companies that are meant to serve us. In reality there are a handful of companies in most sectors that own the thousands of brands we think we are choosing from when we are shopping for groceries, buying a car or even watching TV or listening to music. That makes it harder for us to influence these companies – after all, if I switch from cookie A to cookie B because I don’t like company A’s policy, my money may still end up in the same pocket and my point would be lost.
The best companies, by whichever standards we choose to follow, get big but now we are getting more than we bargained for. The recent announcement of Facebook’s takeover of Whatsapp lead to widespread complaints from Whatsapp users (many of them on Facebook of all places). There are many among us who hate Facebook so much that they were willing to ditch Whatsapp – but if we hate Facebook so much that we’re deleting Whatsapp, why are we not deleting Facebook? This is the mark of a significant shift in the balance of power: Facebook is now more important to us than we are to it. And this does not apply only to Facebook. The markets appear more diversified than ever, but Big Businesses have gotten so big that they no longer fear losing us to the competition. Simply because they are the competition.
Advertising and misdirection, the tools companies have to influence the consumers, should not be enough to weaken our position of power. Especially in the age of information and connectivity, when sharing a bad experience with the entire world takes little more than a single mouse click, we should only be getting stronger. But the opposite is happening. It is because we have become accustomed to the luxuries we have and we refuse to give them up. It is because we hardly know who we’re up against. Because we have been convinced that governments can be trusted to keep companies under control. And it is because we’re too busy sharing pictures of our cats and discussing Miley Cyrus’ hairdo. We are lost in an avalanche of information and we are not prioritizing. But we are only just learning to channel all these stimuli, and once we have mastered that, all this knowledge will make us the most powerful individuals our world has ever seen.
When we know what we are being sold, and when we are uncovering the lies as they’re being fed to us, we will take the power back and restore order. We don’t need the pseudo-support of governments in the form of regulations and bans or other interference (taxation). Those can be circumvented, but a determined and well-informed public cannot. The more we lean on government (or any other organization), the more power we relinquish, because when we expect government to take care of our needs we slowly stop trying to take care of ourselves altogether.
Look at the bill in Arizona that (in the short version) allows business proprietors to reject service to homosexuals if they feel that that somehow affects their religious beliefs. The longer version is that a person who feels hindered in the exercise of their religion can use that as a defense in court; meaning that if a rejected gay couple files a complaint, the entrepreneur may invoke this law to avoid penalization. Hence, one could say the bill allows religious people – and only religious people – to discriminate. But this bill (which thankfully was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer after passing in the State Legislature) is not the problem. We should not need legislation either way, whether it is to force entrepreneurs to do business with everyone or to exempt them from it. Any entrepreneur should have the right to refuse business to whomever he wants and regardless of reason. The consumers have a choice to no longer spend any money at that establishment if they don’t agree with its policies; in a civilized society the homophobic proprietors will surely run out of business. The bill and its protesters are dragging business into the conflict of “the religious v. the gays”, but it is really a matter of having the freedom of choice – and that works both ways. If we want freedom, we shouldn’t fear it.
Are we ready for that? We are certainly more ready than ever. We have access to a wealth of information, and the entire world is connected. We – the citizens, consumers, individuals – have never been more powerful; but we need to stop looking to government to mend what we can fix ourselves. Going even further: without religion or government holding us back we would all have been civilized enough by now to live in that world.