Free Markets and Tolerance: Make More Stuff I Don't Like, Please!
By Sarah Skwire
The other day I told my Facebook friends that my current favorite thing is when the Spring collections from fashion designers come out and they’re full of edgy, wild, often gender bending designs (especially this year in the men’s collections–because Billy Porter) and dads everywhere repost the runway images and declare with outrage that they won’t be buying any of THIS nonsense.
Do they really mean to suggest that if the clothing had been more traditionally styled they’d have laid out $800 for a t-shirt?
Sometimes, you–whoever you are–just aren’t the target audience for a product. I’m Jewish, so I’m not buying any Christian rock anytime soon, but you don’t see me getting all outraged over that trinitarian stuff they keep trying to foist on me. It’s not FOR me. If I liked it, the Christian rockers would be doing their job wrong.
If my crew of Facebook dads liked the current collections from cutting edge fashion houses, those fashion houses would be doing their jobs wrong.
I don’t like olives. I also don’t like horror movies. I don’t like death metal, or rice pudding, or perfumes that smell like food. I don’t like self help books, white wine, spray air fresheners, acrylic yarn, spider plants, flip flops, or golf.
I’m not an exceptionally disagreeable person–at least I don’t think I am. But I’m a person, and that means there are things that I don’t like. I have, in other words, what economists would call preferences.
Free markets mean I can satisfy my preferences for things that I do like–dark chocolate, movies about superheroes, lyrics-driven angsty guitar folk/roots/punk music, clotted cream, perfumes that smell like incense, books about magic and alternate universes, Cabernet, herbal wreaths, cashmere yarn, rose bushes, block heeled boots, and taekwondo.
The market doesn’t deliver everything I want to me, of course. Sometimes this is because the technologies to make the things I want don’t exist yet. (Apparently this includes a chocolate yogurt that actually tastes like both chocolate and yogurt). Sometimes it’s because I’m weird enough that not enough people want the things that I want (Cars with all the bells and whistles BUT that still have windows that roll down manually). Sometimes it’s because I want stuff I can’t afford (diamond necklaces, houses by the ocean, a Shakespeare First Folio). But most of the stuff I want is out there, and if I choose to spend some of my money on it, I can get it. That’s how functional markets work.
And people who make stuff to satisfy my effective demands (that means my demands for things I can afford) are getting better and better at knowing what we want and providing it. Targeted advertising sometimes feels a little creepy, but it’s also how I found out there’s a Canadian bookshop that curates boxes of books and goodies for kids exactly the ages that mine are. It’s how I found my favorite pair of shoes. And it’s how I discovered the wonders of Japanese office supplies.
But sellers’ increased ability to cater to my weirdo wants and desires isn’t limited to me. (As my parents always told me, the world isn’t here to make me happy.) This increased ability to fulfill wants and desires serves all of us. It means my husband can find t-shirts with jokes about his favorite band’s lead singer’s dogs. It means my older daughter can find enamel pins for a web series I’ve never heard of, and my younger daughter can find socks decorated with the faces of her favorite K-pop idols.
It means that people who like olives and horror movies and death metal and all the other stuff I don’t like can find those things too.
A free market is going to make a lot of stuff I don’t like, don’t want, and don’t need.
If the market offers something illegal, I can bring legal action. If it offers something I think is immoral, I can protest or boycott. That’s cool. I don’t have to buy everything the market offers. If I don’t like olives, no one’s going to make me buy them. But I can rest perfectly content knowing that people who do like the revolting salty ovoids can buy them. In exchange for providing me with the stuff that I do want, the free market asks only that I tolerate the wants of others even if I don’t share them. In nearly every case my preference for a particular good or service is just that–a preference. It’s not a referendum on my character, or yours, if we disagree about olives, or white wine, or superheroes.
If it presents me with things that are tacky, or irritating, or taste bad, I can complain to my friends on Facebook if I want, or I can just realize that not everything the market puts out is for everyone.
That’s what makes it great. Even if it does mean that olives, somehow, persist.