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Ignorance on Markets

Ignorance on Markets
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“The customer is always right.” This phrase was popularized just as mass production was beginning to take off in the late 19th century. The concept is straightforward: if a businessman wants to make money, he must treat consumers well. Without patrons, there is no business. Whether they are in fact “right” or “wrong” about something is irrelevant. Their needs must be satisfied.

That truth is lost on “Ronnie,” a now former-shift supervisor at the restaurant chain Boston Market. In an episode of the reality television show Undercover Boss, chief branding officer of the company, Sara Bittorf, went incognito into one eatery an aspiring waitress to train under Ronnie for a chance at winning her own food establishment. In a normal episode of the show, the hardworking employee is rewarded for their dedication to the job. In the case of Bittorf and Boston Market, the shooting goes awry as it turns out Ronnie loathes those who dined in the restaurant. He isn’t shy about this disgust either. Fully aware he was on camera, Ronnie professed to “hate customers more than anything in the entire world.” Bittorf realized that her company’s brand was in jeopardy due to Ronnie spending the majority of the show insulting those who he is employed to serve. At the end, she fires him on the spot. While leaving, Ronnie complains his dismissal “is just not fair” and that it’s “not wrong to hate people.” He did not appear to recognize his attitude is not conducive to a business that is frequented by hundreds of people a day.

The beauty of this episode is that it demonstrated market capitalism at work. The young employee was under no duress to work at Boston Market- he chose his position. On camera he badmouthed the customers who provide the funds for his paycheck. Keeping him employed would have been a liability to the business. At the same time, it freed Ronnie to pursue another line of wealth creation in which he may find actual enjoyment.

Ronnie didn’t look at his firing in that way however. He viewed it as unfair and took with him an unpleasant view of the market process. Unfortunately, Ronnie is not alone in his disdain for capitalism.

Markets are both an economic system as well as a social system based on voluntary exchange. As a societal order, they don’t guarantee success and prosperity or starvation and destitution. The market economy, which is an aggregation of human action, is driven simply by men’s desire. Because the demand for material comfort is limitless within a world bound by scarcity, the free exchange of goods and services tends to result in more labor being dedicated to that which betters the standard of living of all.

Despite the enrichment that occurs when human ends are pursued through peaceful interaction, it would seem that a majority of people firmly reject the free market despite their limited knowledge on its functionality. As economist Walter Block noted, this may have to do with biological hardwiring. Man acts to achieve ends. This does not ensure he will always act morally or with appreciation for his liberty. For Ronnie, his understanding of the role the consumer plays in market affairs is clearly distorted. Why is a reason only he can explain, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the ever-pervasive nanny sate was active in forming his sense of entitlement.

Some could contend that Ronnie’s rotten attitude should be dismissed due to his relatively young age. I would argue otherwise in that there are plenty of full-grown adults who share his scorn for markets, especially in respected media outlets. In a recent open letter on the Washington Post blog, writer Alexandra Petri begs executives of the bookstore Barnes & Noble to reconsider their decision to shut down a third of their brick and mortar locations. In her words, physical bookstores “serve a vital role as showcases for books” and in their absence, literature will suffer.

The trouble with Petri’s impassioned letter is that most readers obviously disagree with her. It’s no longer convenient to browse the shelves of store looking for an interesting title. The internet, namely Amazon.com, makes books widely available with the click of a computer mouse. Along with the development of the e-reader, the leap in technological innovation has made access to books easier and more affordable than ever.

Petri admits that it is “far cheaper to sell books that require no shipping and restocking.” Yet she still clings to the notion that a company losing money should relent in closing up shop. If she truly cared about books, the expansive availability of thoughts and ideas on page should excite her. Instead, she frets over the loss of an experience that she shares with only a minority of readers.

These instances show that despite all evidence and reason, some are unwilling to see economic laws clearly. As John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise on Government,

For though the law of nature be plain and intelligible to all rational creatures; yet men being biased by their interest, as well as ignorant for want of study of it, are not apt to allow of it as a law binding them in the application of it to their particular cases.

The laws of economics are not determined by the will of wishful thinkers. They are found through applying reason to the nature of man and the world of scarcity in which he resides. The great dilemma with economics as a science is not that it hasn’t sufficiently been developed to draw laws from, but that so many are blatantly ignorant of these laws and have no desire to learn and accept them. Through state welfare programs and public school system, the masses fall for the illusion of costless benefits. Employment is regarded as a right instead of an individual transaction and the material wealth created by the unfettered marketplace stays unappreciated

It’s a terrible degeneration of rational thought but not surprising for a populace still enchanted by the idea of the utopian state.

  • Sgraham

    I saw this episode of Undercover Boss. I couldn't believe he had no problem of voicing his negative views about the customer. As he is not on commission, I understand how he doesn't view the customer being directly responsible for his pay check, or at least doesn't have that mindset.

    However, as someone whose job it is to deal with customers I would never voice a negative opinion of customers publicly and neither should he. I think John Locke's comments in the article were right on point and it seems people who have had their liberty suppressed have a better understanding of markets.

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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