One of the oldest complaints coming from the Left is that the business world exploits the common man. The Democrat Party uses it as a veritable rallying cry, with its candidates promising to protect the helpless lower classes from the predations of corporations and international conglomerates. As they say, the game is rigged. They are correct, but not in the way that they think.
If any business wishes to “exploit” its customers, it cannot do so without the consent of the customer or the intervention of the government. Simply put, people either voluntarily trade with businesses or they are forced to trade with them.
Without the help of the government, no business can make you do something that you do not wish to do. The latest widget may be something that you really want or even desperately need, but manufacturers cannot make you buy their products if you decide it is not in your interest. At the very least, abstention is an option for the consumer.
A business may charge more for its product than you may think it is worth. A business may raise prices in times of shortages and natural disasters. A business may price life-saving medications and devices out of the reach of the average person. All of those things can be true, and yet no one is being exploited. It boils down to consent — are you forced to deal with this person or this business? No? Then how are you being exploited?
The only way that people can be exploited is through the use of force. Most companies do not consider forcing people to do things as part of their strategy. That is bad for business, after all. But by getting the government to do its dirty work, many businesses are able to force changes that benefit them.
The most obvious method by which businesses use the state to exploit people is outright theft. Through taxation, the state takes money from the citizenry and gives it to enterprises that it favors. Think Solyndra or the Export-Import Bank here. The government and the businesses that receive the stolen loot refer to it as subsidies, but it is theft nonetheless.
Businesses also use the power of government to destroy their competition through regulation. That in turn reduces choices left to the consumers and raises prices by propping up less efficient business models. Napster was a fantastically innovative company that allowed people to network their computers together to share files, including music. Because some people using Napster shared pirated music albums, Napster was destroyed when the Recording Industry Association of America brought suit against them. Even though they had more than 20 million customers, they filed for bankruptcy three years after they were founded.
Tariffs and import quotas are another way that businesses use the state to exploit consumers. By limiting more-efficient international competitors from accessing the domestic market, consumers’ choices are reduced to less efficient domestic manufacturers.
For example, the U.S. sugar industry would not exist were it not for help from the government. The climate in the United States is very poor for sugar production, but Florida is full of sugar cane. Why? Because import quotas reduce sugar importation to a fraction of what it would be in a free market. The result is that U.S. consumers pay roughly double the world market price for sugar. Have you ever wondered why high-fructose corn syrup is so prevalent in the United States and nowhere else? It is a cheaper alternative to overpriced U.S. sugar. No wonder Archer Daniels Midland favors the sugar quota.
And speaking of Archer Daniels Midland, another way that corporations exploit consumers is by flat-out forcing them to buy their product. ADM is one of the largest corn processors, the main ingredient in ethanol. By government mandate, American drivers are forced to buy gasoline with ethanol added to it. It was initially touted as an environmental panacea as a renewable energy source, but it is decidedly terrible for the environment. On top of that, anyone familiar with the auto industry knows that ethanol is horrible for cars. But with more than 14 billion gallons of ethanol sold last year, the corn growers are rather indifferent.
When businesses can’t sell what they have or can’t compete with other businesses on a level playing field, they get what they want through the use of force. And don’t think it is anything less.
If you are caught using gasoline without ethanol, you will be fined and eventually jailed for disobeying. If you import sugar outside of the quota system, you will be fined and eventually jailed for disobeying. If you continue to offer a peaceful service to customers in defiance of the state, you will be fined and eventually jailed for disobeying.
So the Left has it wrong. Wal-Mart is not exploiting cheap labor, because they are not forcing people to work there. Apple is not exploiting people’s thirst for iPhones, because it is not forcing people to buy them. Elton John is not exploiting concertgoers with his very high ticket prices, because he is not forcing fans to attend.
The true definition of exploitation? Being forced to obey.