Monday, December 10, 2012

Freedom of choice in the marketplace

This essay was originally published on June 20th, almost exactly six months ago.

As consumers, we all make choices.  We choose which store we will shop at for food, clothes, and everything that goes into our home.  If you get most of your food from a grocery store, you are choosing which store to buy your groceries from.  If, instead, most of your food comes from restaurants, you are choosing which restaurant to eat at.  After you’re seated at a table, you will choose again from the items on that restaurant's menu.  Choices are being made constantly.

In a truly free market, there are rewards for companies that make a good product and punishments for companies that don’t.  The companies that make the products you buy will have some additional income because of your purchases.  If you like eating a lot of vegetables, you’ll buy them, and the companies that produce them will do their best to deliver fresh vegetables to grocery stores and restaurants at a competitive price.  On the other hand, any company that has late deliveries, any company that delivers spoiled food, and any company that tries to charge more for their products than what the products are really worth will find that their products don’t sell well, if at all, and those companies will eventually go out of business.
When you’re shopping for a car, if you like Fords, you buy a Ford.  If, however, you prefer the cars that GM or Chrysler offers, you buy them instead.  If you don’t like any American car, there are automakers in Germany, France, England, Italy, Japan, and South Korea who would love to have you as a customer.

Freedom of choice decided by judges

As I write this, the United States Supreme Court is deliberating the constitutionality of a law called The Affordable Health Care Act.  The main feature of this law is that it can require all of us to purchase health insurance.

During the oral arguments, at least one Supreme Court Justice asked the government’s legal representative to define the limits on the government’s ability to force us to buy a particular product.  The justice asked whether the government could force us to buy broccoli.  This particular product is one that a recent president publicly said he didn’t like, and that as a President, he felt he shouldn't have to eat.  He wanted to preserve that choice for himself.  Those who don't like this law, including myself, want that same choice preserved for ourselves as well, but the law, as written, forces all Americans to make a particular choice - to purchase this product.

Forced choices

The current administration has made other economic choices for us.  They have made it difficult for some companies and impossible for others to manufacture incandescent light bulbs, similar to the one that Thomas Edison invented over a century ago.  The regulations that were imposed upon the light bulb manufacturers did more than just regulate a healthy industry.  They tried to put an entire industry out of business, and it wasn't the first time this has been tried.  President Obama has publicly stated his intention to put America's coal industry out of business.
If you believe, as I do, that these are examples of the President’s deliberate intent to eliminate American businesses, then I believe that these are examples of an unconstitutional process.  Let me say it again for the sake of emphasis.  Whenever any U.S. Government agency restricts the choices that we can make, whatever law(s) they are relying upon when they regulate are a violation of the United States Constitution that the President swore to support and defend when he began his term.
The fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution is one sentence.  Here it is:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

I learned this from my public school English classes

Follow along with me.  First, let me apply the rules of grammar.  When the word "and" is used here "... shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue ....", it divides the sentence into two parts, called “clauses”.  The first clause is the basis for my claim that government restrictions on my free choices are unconstitutional.  This clause prohibits the government from making unreasonable searches.

There have been many court cases that have defined how and when government agencies can search you, your home, your car, and your workplace.  Many government agencies want to know what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, where we’re doing it, and with whom we’re doing business of any sort.  Fourth Amendment court decisions also affect the way that local police officers do their own work.
That first clause offers people security “in their persons, houses, papers, and effects”.  “Secure in their persons” refers to police requests for you to empty your pockets and to put anything that is in them on display, so that the police officer can see what you were carrying.  Searches of your home or workplace are usually done after the police have received a search warrant from a judge.  The concept of searching the papers of a private citizen, or groups of them organized into businesses, clubs, and other associations has been defined and refined by past court decisions regarding the U.S. Mail, electronic mail, and other forms of information that is sent, through any medium, from one person to another.
The fourth amendment states one more place in which we, as citizens, must be secure – our “effects”.  My copy of Black’s Law Dictionary defines the word as your personal property, which is protected from unreasonable searches by police officers and others who exercise governmental authority.  They cannot make an unreasonable search of any file cabinets that are in your home, any suitcases, briefcases, pocketbooks, knapsacks, or packages you may have with you at the time you meet them, and they cannot make an unreasonable search of the places where you store your personal things when you’re working.

Applying the 4th Amendment to the marketplace

I contend that a wider definition of the term “personal effects” includes your right to make the economic choices I mentioned earlier.  Because our founding fathers hated the way that King George III commanded the colonies, they wrote our Constitution in a way that limited the power of any United States President.  Whenever any governmental agency limits our choices, I believe that they’re acting unconstitutionally.

You have the right to buy any car you wish, from any manufacturer, and if you wish and can afford it, to import that car from any country.  You have the right to buy food from a restaurant or from a grocery store, and if you happen to like broccoli (I do), you have the legal and constitutional right to buy it.  If you don't like broccoli (George W. Bush doesn't), you have the right not to buy it.  These are your rights, but as an economic balance in a free society, food manufacturers have rights, including the legal right to choose which products they make and sell.

To put it another way, government agencies simply don't have enough Constitutional authority to prevent you from making whatever economic choices you wish to make.
Lawyers who spend a lot of time in courtrooms, like other people in other professions, sometimes give advice to younger people who are just starting their own careers.  One piece of advice they sometimes pass along is this: “Don’t ask a witness a question unless you know how the witness will answer it.”  I already know how some people will answer this.  Some people say that Americans cannot be trusted to make truly free economic choices.  They will say that we, our families, our neighbors, and the entire American society have to be protected from bad choices, including unhealthy food, selfish personal desires, and even deliberate fraud, as perpetrated by people who are now spending long years in jail.

Those who make that statement are questioning whether God loved us enough to give us free will.  God loved Adam and Eve even after they ate the apple, but living in the Garden of Eden was a privilege that they didn’t deserve after they ate the apple.  We still have free choice, given to us by God, but there are punishments for those of us who do make bad choices.  Possible punishments include a reduction in your wealth and a loss of your ability to earn it.

The consequences of bad choices

All through history, people have made bad choices.  For over a century now, some people have wanted to spend money gambling in a casino instead of paying their bills.  Others want to spend money on other addictions.  Still others simply don’t spend their money wisely.  They buy things they don’t need and ignore the things they do need.  No government agency needs to correct this practice, because in a truly free market, economic choices are already governed by laws that Charles Darwin developed.  The strong survive and the weak don’t.  If you’re the main source of income for your family, and you aren’t providing enough money to pay the rent, your family, friends, or your neighbors may speak with you privately.  If you belong to a church, someone in the church may ask to speak with you privately.
Whenever a bus carrying thirty people on a fixed income arrives at a casino, most of them will go home poorer than they were when they arrived.  This is, in fact, the biggest reason why casinos are still in business, but every one of those thirty people has a right to get on that bus, to walk into that casino, and to gamble with their money, hoping to earn more.  In a truly free economic system, those who leave richer can afford to treat themselves, their families, and their friends even nicer than they did the day before.  Those who leave the casino poorer will have to depend on their families, their friends, and perhaps the charity of strangers for economic support.
If those who depend on the income of a gambler don’t like the losses that the gambler sometimes has, they’re free to talk with the gambler and to try to convince him or her not to gamble, but the choice to gamble or not belongs to the gambler.

The national food supply chain

What about the threats to the economy of, say, a food manufacturer who puts something unhealthy into his company’s products, either accidentally or otherwise?  There is a very simple answer to that question as well.  Ask a rat.
Many people have tried unsuccessfully to kill rats with poisoned food.  The rats survived because they approach any new food source with caution.  The first rat who finds it will taste a little bit of it.  If it doesn’t taste good, or if he gets a bad reaction to that first bite of it, the rat will urinate on it, and no other rat that finds that food will eat any of it.
If you eat a meal at a restaurant tonight, and get bad food and bad service, you have every legal and constitutional right not to go back there tomorrow.  You also have every legal right to tell your family, your friends, and all your neighbors that you got bad food and bad service at that restaurant.  If your family and your friends have never been to that restaurant, and if they value your opinion, they won’t eat there.
In a truly free marketplace, any restaurant owner can put any food he wants on his menu and in his kitchen, but if he wants to stay in business, he will only put items on the menu that his customers want to eat.  In addition, he will only order his food supplies from vendors who can deliver the food fresh and on time.  He will also make sure that his kitchen is clean, so that he can cook and serve this food to his paying customers in a way that they will like, so that they keep them coming back to his restaurant time and time again.  No government regulator will ever be necessary.

Choosing to buy faded blue jeans

There's an upside to establishing a truly free marketplace.  A very big upside.  Half a century ago, every new pair of denim pants was sold in only one color - dark blue.  One woman's husband preferred the way his jeans looked after the blue dye had faded a little, so she walked into a store that sold them one day and asked for some that were pre-faded.  The clerk said that the store didn't have any.  That could have been the end of the story, but the clerk told her supervisor what the customer had asked for.  The supervisor told the store manager, who contacted the clothing manufacturer, who made some pre-faded blue jeans in the 1960s, and the rest is history.
So let me choose whether to buy health insurance.  If I need it, and I’m responsible enough to know that I need it, I’ll buy as much of it as I can afford.  If not, I’ll go without.  People who are very healthy and don’t have any dependents may not need it.  Let me also decide whether to buy incandescent light bulbs, broccoli, restaurant food (with or without salt), a restaurant dessert, and even large quantities of sugary soft drinks.  Let me choose whether I want to visit a casino today.  Let me choose whether I want to buy anything.
It’s my right.  God bless America.