Questions About Tolerance
Two days ago, I went to my bank (a branch of TD Bank) in my suburban Maine town.
A classical liberal or a libertarian should be tolerant: that’s constitutive of the brand. Tolerance, or respect for others’ choices, is part of the implicit normative implications of microeconomic theory. This means, of course, to be tolerant of others’ individual liberty, not of their tyrannical longings. We should be tolerant of anything that does not directly threaten the spontaneous order in which every individual can choose the personal lifestyle that he wants. (I use “he” to mean he or she. Please be tolerant.) James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek, two economists and political philosophers who each won a Nobel prize in economics, have done much work on these issues.
My bank celebrates Pride Month with little posters inside and a big rainbow flag in the double door entryway of the tiny building. Inside, the personnel was, as usual, enthusiastically helpful and customer focused.
Can we assume that the company, in line with its customer focus, is tolerant and that its next celebration will be, say, Individual Liberty Month or Free Speech Month or the Second Amendment Month? (Parenthetically, I was armed as I walked into the bank, but nobody is forced to be armed, which is part of the essential meaning of liberty and tolerance, and I did not shout about it: “Hey! Look at my Sig under my shirt!”) The Free Speech celebration should in fact be called “Free Speech, Not Fair Speech” to make sure that it says what it means. The answer is no: they will not do this. Politicization of business is a zero-sum game; it leads to confrontation and makes tolerance more difficult.
In a free society, tolerance between consumers and producers appears to be asymmetric. Producers (in the general sense of suppliers) are very tolerant of and certainly would not dare to challenge their customers’ opinions, while consumers normally don’t refrain from expressing opinions that their suppliers may not like. Your heating oil delivery company doesn’t advertise political opinions on its trucks but you don’t care whether or not a political sign on your lawn displeases your oil delivery man. There is a reason for this behavior, typical of commercial societies all over history: producers are serving consumers, not the other way around. Although most individuals are both consumers and producers (some, like children or social welfare recipients, are only consumers for a time), the sovereignty of the consumer reflects the idea that we produce in order to consume, not the other way around. This amounts to saying that an individual naturally wants prosperity, not slavery.
It is different under an authoritarian regime where producers serve political power first and consumers must be content with that is left. In his 1969 book Éloge de la société de consommation (In Praise of the Consumer Society), French philosopher Raymond Ruyer succinctly described the difference between a market economy, where consumers are sovereign, and a planned economy, where producers run the show (under government control):
In a market economy, demand is imperious and supply is supplicant . . . In a planned economy, supply is imperious and demand is supplicant.
Dans l’économie de marché, la demande est impérieuse, et l’offre suppliante . . . Dans l’économie planifiée, l’offre est impérieuse, et la demande suppliante.