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Mechanical Courtesy and Consumer Activism

August 21st, 2009 · 17 Comments

Conveniently tying together two recent posts, Dworkin has an extended discussion of courtesy in Law’s Empire, which he uses to illustrate some points about the interpretation of social institutions, but which has some independent interests. On the familiar account of somewhat ritualized behavior like tipping your hat to people you encounter, or saying “Please” and “Thank you” at the appropriate times, these are ways of showing respect. But he suggests an alternative, quite plausible, interpretation on which these little rituals are ways of smoothing social interaction by making it less dependent on or reflective of personal assessment of respect. Etiquette and politeness, in other words, are ways of making our behavior somewhat more automatic so that we treat people reasonably sociably under certain conditions whether or not we particularly like them. And there’s a broader class of norms like that, which we tend to call “civilized” if we’re praising them and “bourgeois” if we want to give them a pejorative sting, but which actually have the same etymological meaning: Approximately, this is the way people in cities (civitatem/burgos) behave. Which makes a fair amount of sense if you think about the function of those norms as enabling social cooperation across larger groups—like you find in dense urban population centers—than you can sustain through thicker and more direct forms of community or kinship or affection, like an Amish barn raising or a tribal hunt. To the extent the latter are completely displaced, it’s certainly understandable that people will be displeased if it starts to seem like “cash payment has become the sole nexus of man to man,” but it has the virtue of enabling much broader cooperation with all the benefits that come from that.

This, I think, is at the core of what bugs me about the Whole Foods boycott. It’s not necessarily that I agree with Mackey—health care isn’t really my issue, so I don’t know whether I do—and it’s certainly not that I think he’s somehow entitled to have people shop at his stores rather than Trader Joe’s. It’s more that I think it’s actually a significant achievement of liberal societies that, not only do we refrain from clapping you in irons if you’ve got the wrong religious or political views, but that we’re more generally disposed to bracket those things in our non-intimate relationships and just take them out of the calculus when we’re engaged in most forms of polite interaction and market cooperation, at least when we’re not talking about views that are really wildly beyond the pale. One of the ways markets and liberalism more generally dovetail is that they function by giving us the luxury of ignorance: I don’t need to know why the goods I’m selling are suddenly in greater or lesser demand, or what particular purpose they’re being put to, and vice versa for the money I give others for goods—I just need to respond to the price signals generated by that demand. And in social life more generally, I treat my neighbors with a certain level of respect just as fellow citizens without much bothering about what they do in the bedroom or whether it’s Ronald Dworkin or Michelle Malkin on their bookshelves, even if I happen to know these things.

In economic life, it’s clearly to a certain extent a good thing if, being better informed about the practices of the companies we deal with in the information age, we make our consumption decisions not just on the basis of the price and quality of the product, but on what we know about how they treat workers, whether they’re ecologically responsible, and so on. To the extent that Whole Foods has taken advantage of this, I guess you could argue Mackey’s being hoist on his own petard: Live by the lifestyle brand, die by the lifestyle brand. But I get uneasy when this starts getting extended to disapproved expression less obviously related to the company’s practices. I think most of us would find it upsetting if an employer declined to hire someone because he didn’t want some percentage of the salary he paid out to be donated to the Mormons or the Heritage Foundation or Move On or whatever. Obviously it’s not really symmetrical: Unlike most prospective employees, John Mackey’s going to be a multi-millionaire no matter what, so at some level, sure, boo-hoo. But insofar as I think the disposition to bracket is a good thing, I’m unhappy to see it eroded.

Tangent: As I mentioned in a previous post, Mackey has given money to my former employers at Reason and it seems likely he’s done the same for soon-to-be employer Cato. In the past, my policy has generally been that I don’t want to know who the donors are because I don’t want that even in the back of my head when I’m writing. Of course, the problem is that you can’t do these sort of “full disclosure” caveats when you don’t know that—I’m curious if folks have thoughts on what a good approach to this is.

Tags: Markets · Sociology



17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JackFrost // Aug 21, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I think you’re misinterpreting the reason so many people are reacting so viscerally to the WholeFoods CEO thing. The main problem is that since the Supreme Court determined that money is speech and can’t be regulated, a small pool of very rich people have had significant influence in shaping the policies that affect us all.
    The WholeFoods feels like a betrayal, precisely because people were under the mistaken impression that this company had similar values to them and thus was on “their side”. It is not so much what he said, it is more that he did *not* agree with the what the majority of his customers thought (rightly or wrongly).

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Aug 21, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    I understand exactly why people are upset; I think it’s a bad reason to be upset, for the reasons laid out here and in the post below.

  • 3 sidereal // Aug 21, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    we’re more generally disposed to bracket those things in our non-intimate relationships and just take them out of the calculus when we’re engaged in most forms of polite interaction and market cooperation, at least when we’re not talking about views that are really wildly beyond the pale

    I’m sympathetic to this view, but I’m not convinced that our more arms-length approach to interpersonal interaction in dense environments is as much an advantage as it is a necessity. In urban areas it has traditionally been and mostly continues to be woefully impractical to get to know everyone you commercially interact with well enough to know what’s on their bookshelf, who they vote for, what their fetishes are, etc. But is that an improvement? I’d need evidence. It may well be that this sort of compartmentalization decreases social accountability or increases deviousness in a way that harms society on net (Acknowledging, of course, that a libertarian would be strongly disinclined to prioritize social cohesion over other effects)

    the problem is that you can’t do these sort of “full disclosure” caveats when you don’t know that—I’m curious if folks have thoughts on what a good approach to this is.

    Hacks will out. I consider full disclosure one of those journalistic fig leaves that allow writers to feel like they’re being impartial so that they don’t actually have to be. Also, isn’t just an attempted refutation of a Circumstantial Ad Hominem fallacy? I wouldn’t sweat refuting fallacies.

  • 4 Matt D // Aug 21, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    I tend to agree, but I do think Yglesias and others have a point in that the reverence with which successful businesspeople are treated skews things a bit. Mackey has no particular expertise in health care or insurance; his views are aired and given weight solely because of his significant but rather unrelated success in the grocery business. So, effectively, when you patronize Whole Foods, you are enhancing Mackey’s political influence. And if his political influence–not his personal opinions but his political influence–is being wielded to ends you don’t approve of, then perhaps it makes sense to take your business elsewhere.

  • 5 Matt D // Aug 21, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    I should add, there are relatively few businesspeople as successful as Mackey; in most cases I think what you’re saying about compartmentalization is apt.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Aug 21, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    I don’t know, if the upshot of the column is “we tried this approach at our company and employees seem happy with it,” then it’s not obvious to me that his business experience is entirely irrelevant.

  • 7 Matt D // Aug 21, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Yeah, that’s a good point. OTOH I’m not sure how reliable his word is; I doubt many CEOs would say “our health plan sucks and our employees hate it,” after all.

  • 8 Jacob Wintersmith // Aug 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    You say we should mostly ignore other people’s opinions, except for “views that are really wildly beyond the pale”, but what is the important distinction between these classes of opinions?

    One answer might be that on many issues (e.g. health care, bank bailouts) serious epistemic problems prevent us from identifying a single right answer with any confidence. Thus, rational and morally upstanding people can easily have opinions on those questions which differ from my own. By contrast, a person who thinks the holocaust never happened is certainly an epistemic failure and probably a pretty hateful person to boot.

    However, some epistemically bankrupt views are far more widespread than holocaust denial. What would you think about, say, a boycott of a business on the basis that it’s owned by young-earth creationists?

  • 9 Richard // Aug 21, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    I think Nagel basically nailed this issue in ‘Concealment and Exposure‘.

    Nagel’s cultural liberalism supports the idea that we should “bracket” people’s private opinions and activities, at least. It’s less clear whether we should also strive to ignore their voluntary exertions of political power (as when multimillionaires try to shape public opinion). One might deny this without this implying any kind of threat to Joe the Mormon, since there seems to be a principled line we can draw here. Joe’s Mormonism seems to fall clearly within the protected sphere of his private life. The same cannot be said of Mackey’s op-ed writing.

  • 10 Jacob Wintersmith // Aug 22, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Richard, I agree with the public/private distinction in principle, but I think it’s hard to find many cases which are unambiguously private. Everyone who votes exercises political power, and lots of people try to shape public opinion on a small scale (even if the newspapers don’t help to spread their views).

  • 11 Matt D // Aug 22, 2009 at 12:30 am

    Everyone who votes exercises political power, and lots of people try to shape public opinion on a small scale (even if the newspapers don’t help to spread their views).

    Yes, but that’s offset by your own participation in the political process. I can ignore how you might vote because I know I can always vote the other way. But there’s really nothing I can do which is analogous to being venerated CEO granted op-ed space in a major newspaper.

  • 12 Gil // Aug 22, 2009 at 12:33 am

    I think I agree that bracketing people’s opinions when trading with them is a good thing, and it promotes diversity of opinion, respect for autonomy, healthy criticism of orthodoxy, etc. This is especially tempting in this situation because I’m more sympathetic to Mackey’s position than his critics’.

    But, I think that many of the people who are now for boycotting Whole Foods were shopping there to signal their solidarity with their right-thinking peers. Now, they’ve discovered that that signal is not exactly what they thought it was, so they’re signaling by NOT shopping there.

    It seems like Mackey’s now suffering from the same discourtesy that he’d been benefiting from. So, it’s hard to say that it was good before, and it’s bad now.

  • 13 Matt D // Aug 22, 2009 at 12:46 am

    It’s worth noting too that liberal dissatisfaction with Whole Foods has been brewing for a while. There’s this really irritating assumption that shopping at Whole Foods is just like this silly thing that liberals do on their way to protest seal clubbings or some such bullshit, but that’s based as much in convenient characterture as fact. Liberal opinion has always been mixed on Whole Foods.

  • 14 Jacob Wintersmith // Aug 22, 2009 at 1:25 am

    On full disclosure: Perhaps you could remain in ignorance if you send out drafts to an intern (surely Cato has some lowly interns) who can add the so-and-so-gave-us-money notices as needed.

  • 15 Aaron Haspel // Aug 22, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Jacob’s approach might work at Cato, but lowly interns are not always available. We might also consider abandoning disclosure altogether. Every journalist has a nexus of biases that inform his views, yet he is supposed to disclose only friendships (possibly important) and donations (probably unimportant). Disclosure is partial by nature, and partial disclosure encourages irrelevant tu quoque sniping. Presumably the journalist’s argument stands or falls on the merits, no matter who he is friendly with or how much his organization has been paid. Current disclosure standards promote these matters to undeserved importance.

  • 16 Joe Miller // Aug 22, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Re: full disclosure: I’m not entirely sure that the remaining ignorant approach will really work. Consider the case at issue: it’s relevant to the discussion that Mackey regularly donates to various libertarian causes, no? I mean, it doesn’t directly affect his argument. But if you’re really reporting on the story, it seems relevant to note that this is hardly an isolated example of Mackey holding different political views than most of his customers.

    So in that sense, it’s tough to see how you could do due diligence in your reporting while still remaining ignorant about where your own funding comes from. Not all cases will be like this, of course, but many will. So a policy of uniform ignorance, it seems to me, won’t ultimately work.

    That said, I’m not sure that I have any good response to Aaron. Arguments really should stand or fall on their own merits; why does it matter whether someone is (indirectly) funding me to make them? If the arguments are crap, then that will be obvious.

    Perhaps, though, straight reporting is different? I will always have to pick-and-choose which facts to include and I must craft those facts into some sort of narrative. So maybe there it’s important to alert people as to where my own (perhaps entirely unintentional) biases might lie? It will always be only partial, as Aaron says. But I wonder whether saying that all disclosure is only partial, so no disclosure at all isn’t doing that whole perfect being the enemy of the good thing?

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