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American Consumerism -- A Lost Virtue, Part II
Part II -- Bourgeoisie virtue and the Consumer
Please read American Consumerism -- A Lost Virtue, Part I, Liberty and Virtue.
The idea of ethics and virtue does not stem from controlling what goes “on in the bedroom”. Neither does it stem from a government which controls the movements of its economic-driven businesses. Bourgeoisie virtue, as Franklin called it, comes from allowing ethics and virtue to form based on the consumer. Though many Americans today consider free market to be based on the “rights of a business,” this is not true. The idea behind bourgeoisie virtue is that the consumer will guide the market according to consumer needs and desires. The far right considers this in the most extreme of fashion. Accordingly, this concept will never fail. A more appropriate analysis would be that it will not usually fail. The far left considers it dangerous that the economic market be left to the consumer’s discretion. To leave economics to the government would mean liberty would suffer. The system in place typically works. But by its very nature, there are times that the free market fails. At that point, the government must intervene.
The basic concept of Bourgeoisie virtue is that if a business wants to stay in business, it will act honorably, honestly and virtuously in its dealings with customers. If it does not, it will quickly find itself out of business because the consumer will not tolerate certain behaviors. The ethics used in business will in turn filter down through those particular business players’ personal lives and then throughout society as a whole. This means that whatever you do in life whether professionally or personally, to be successful, you must treat others with honor, honesty and virtue to get what you want from them and in turn, they from you.
Virtue is not completely absent in our Republic because it is based on commerce and the consumer in particular. It is simply a different form of virtue than what has been formed in history. Generally, if the consumer is happy, the market is happy. However, we are moving away from consumer control of free market because the idea that free market is about the rights of businesses themselves is beginning to develop. This means that bourgeoisie virtue could indeed disappear, without a new form of virtue to take its place. Of course, there have always been some exceptions to the rule regarding virtuous behavior in American business. These have been dealt with through customer disapproval or legal means when necessary. But, today, more and more profitable businesses are using nonvirtuous means to deal with customers and customers are allowing it. Americans have basically given up their rights as consumers. This is evident in such things as a new cell phone plan every two years is equated with the need to get a new phone. A new phone is not a requirement when signing up for a new plan, but the consumer has been convinced that he either no longer has a choice or that his “old” phone is not good enough. In his desire for materials, he has willingly allowed himself to be convinced of this and is willing to trade his rights of free market for rights of abundant material goods.
Another example of this trade-off would be the store gift card. Prior to this fairly new invention, when a customer needed to return a purchase to a store, a receipt was required, or at the very best, the item was returned, no questions asked. This was made easier for the retailer when bar codes became common because it was obvious the item came from that particular company. In recent years, however, not having a receipt to return an item, leads to a “gift card.” Instead of receiving money back to use as the consumer pleases, he has no choice but to spend the gift card at the original retailer. If this gift card is not used within a reasonable time as determined by the retailer, it begins losing monetary value in small increments. This is a completely unnecessary process for preventing theft issues – what is claimed is the reasoning behind this process. Bar codes and requiring identification from the consumer should easily resolve any potential theft issues. The argument on exactly how high retail theft is to warrant this gift card procedure requires another essay. Suffice to say that retailers have convinced the consumer that this option is necessary in keeping lower prices. Few consumers have questioned these methods because they, well quite frankly, are afraid the prices will be raised due to a presumed recent surge of theft across The Land.
The consumer has given up his rights and in turn, has lessened the virtues Franklin held dear. Once consumers accept these unvirtuous acts by commerce, by Franklin’s own theory, this will filter down through the individual and society to create unvirtuous behavior. Without a form of virtue to take its place, the Republic of America becomes unvirtuous. In these examples, it is easy to see how the bourgeoisie virtue that America has been dependent upon is on its way out.
If there is a criticism to be had with the founders' thought, it would be the founders’ failure to realize a time when bourgeois virtues and acquisition would actually recede to an avarice position – that humans were not evolved enough to go beyond centering in on things and insist on moderate acquisition. The idea that unvirtuous behavior of man and business was very much on the minds of founders. But, perhaps Franklin never considered that it would be on such a wide-scale, or that the consumer would not care how a business treated him, preferring his stuff at all costs. Perhaps this is cultural cost of commerce at its best.