Blaming Voters or Consumers is a Cop Out
I’ve argued here before that blaming voters for bad policy or consumers for things like labor conditions is a cop out. (Here and here for voters, here and here for consumers). The general idea is that social outcomes are not a product of unalloyed aggregated individual choice. Institutions matter, power matters. Elites shape the ideas (or people) that can get a serious hearing, and the structure of the choices people get. They work to suppress information and to coopt efforts to challenge them. They make symbolic moves to demobilize those challenges. They act to influence the preferences people hold. Those who hold positions of power and authority are supposed to do things like follow the law, act morally, represent us, etc. When they fail to, it’s their fault – ‘why did you let me?’ is a ridiculous response to a charge of dereliction of duty.
There are often two response to this claim that raise an important point, and addressing them helps me clarify my argument. First is the idea that I’m saying that people have no responsibility to act at all–that I’m essentially leaving them out of the conversation entirely. Second is the idea that saying they aren’t to blame is saying they have no role.
Let’s take the second part first. Obviously, people buying things matter in producing economic outcomes, and voting matters for producing political outcomes. To simplify greatly, if I gave you the choice of moldy bread or stale bread you have a choice, but it wouldn’t tell us whether you’d prefer fresh bread (or fruits or vegetables). Having a role is not the same as having power, nor is it the same as being able to effectively wield that power. Sure, if every consumers did something, it might matter, but how do they get organized to do it? If a process has a whole series of steps, and then people get to make a very limited choice at the end of it, they matter, but those who influence the earlier stages matter even more. If you can control the agenda or the final choice, you should choose the former.
As to the first point, saying voters (or consumers) aren’t to blame for the status quo isn’t the same as people don’t bear any responsibility to change things. For one thing, ‘voter’ and ‘consumer’ are very narrow compared to ‘people.’ Using those words seems natural, but it’s actually an important political move. What sounds like a description actually circumscribes the question of ‘how’. Right out of the gate, the presumption is that your method of responding is only to buy things (or not) or to vote for one candidate over another. Even if you understand those things broadly (and most people likely won’t) you are still limited–say to boycotts, or knocking on doors during a primary. There is a whole world out there of activism that gets obscured, that gets hidden. Don’t believe your political enemies aren’t fighting over the agenda, or the details of legislation, or rule making or implementation in between elections. The truly powerful aim to win no matter who is formally in charge. But beyond that, people are more than their vote, they are more than their consumption choices. Treating them in this sort of one-dimensional way makes mobilizing them to action difficult.
In addition, simply saying one isn’t to blame doesn’t mean one shouldn’t act to fix something. When an arsonist starts a fire, it’s the arsonist that is to blame for it. That seems clear. But if firefighter chose not to fight the fire, saying that ‘I’m not at fault because I didn’t start this fire’, they too would bear responsibility. It would not change the blameworthiness of the arsonist. As citizens (a broader term that is relevant whether we are talking about politics or economics) or even as people (even better) we should act. That point is entirely separate from blame.
Those who are happy with and those who profit from the status quo will always demand you adopt ineffective tactics and ways of talking about the problem. Indeed, the ubiquitous of the idea that choice drives outcomes, of the idea that we have no role beyond consumer or voters (or ‘volunteer’) are key barriers to us seeing who is to blame and acting to stop them.