The Common Good
March-April 1999

The Customer is Not Always Right

by Douglas Hicks | March-April 1999

What's morality have to do with economics?

At first glance, economics and ethics do not fit together as readily as springtime and baseball or politicians and controversy. But in the past some of the most brilliant economists were driven to address urgent social problems of their day. The father of neoclassical economics, Alfred Marshall, wrote that poverty and its removal "give to economic studiesà their chief and their highest interest." Yet the complexity of today's global economy makes thoughtful and relevant ethical reflection a challenge indeed. And the claim of many economists to be doing "value-free" social science has presented a roadblock for ethicists and everyday citizens to strike up meaningful dialogue.

Thus it is good news that the recent Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Amartya Sen, an Indian-born scholar whose work displays the vital links between economics and ethics. Indeed, no person has thought more carefully about the moral aspects of the foundations of economic theory or of contemporary problems like poverty, population, and inequality. Sen helps us—whether economists, ethicists, or citizen leaders—to understand economic goods and services within a wider framework of what is right and good for persons and societies.

Ethical reflection like Sen's is needed in the face of the sweeping but unspecific claim that "capitalism" has proven itself as the only viable economic system. While it is clear that free markets will—and should—play an important role in modern Western (as well as Westernized) societies, we still must specify the form and role of the market mechanism within the wider society. Broad statements need to be transformed into careful ethical reasoning.

To reflect ethically on economic life requires that we understand how economics relates to "the rest of life." Put another way, a moral approach to economics concerns not only how the market functions internally but, more fundamentally, what effect market-based principles and practices have on the other sectors and institutions of a democratic society. Capitalism clearly provides the most efficient internal economic mechanism, but what are its impacts—foreseen and unforeseen—on other spheres of society? We cannot ignore the pressing moral aspects of that question.

The Individual as 'Customer'

In many of his writings, Sen asserts that economic arrangements should be evaluated in terms of their impacts on the capability of human beings to function well within their societies. He emphasizes that persons should be thought of and treated as moral agents, possessing freedom, responsibility, and capability. For Sen the challenge is to see economic life—and every other part of life—within a wide moral perspective. He ends one essay with the claim, "What matters, finally, is how we see each other."

If he is correct, it should be troubling that market-based language has proliferated in contemporary American life. Seeing and treating persons as "customers" is now common in many, if not most, spheres of society. In the business sector itself, "customer service," "customer satisfaction," and "customer loyalty" have become watchwords for marketing and strategic growth practices. From their market-based home, these concepts have seeped into other sectors. Changes in healthcare provision, among other effects, have turned patients into customers. Experts now advocate "customer-focused health care."

While observers of health care would argue about the merits of such thinking and acting, few would dispute the increased usage of customer-based language. In university settings, trustees and administrators facing fierce competition and rising costs have begun to think of their students as customers—customers for whom they must compete and whom they must please. Even personal life is not immune to a market-based approach: Dating services and matchmaking agencies have turned single persons into customers, making "shopping for a spouse" exactly that.

We could look further at recent literature on "growth strategy" and "marketing" for churches. In articles and books, market-based principles and concepts are accepted uncritically; hence titles such as Marketing Your Church and User Friendly Churches no longer shock us. Such language makes it challenging, to say the least, for churches to offer "prophetic" or critical perspectives on their society—let alone on aspects of the market economy. Churches would not want to displease—or lose—their customers.

It is reasonable to say that the increasing use of the language of marketing, customers, and consumers is merely a question of language. But from biblical narratives describing the power of the spoken word, whether divine or human, to contemporary cultural criticism and postmodern theory, we know that the language we use makes all the difference in constructing our societal, communal, and personal realities. Thus recent trends are not about language alone, for the language of customers and consumers is tied to a framework and practices of treating persons as such.

Advocates of market principles might reply, further, that calling ourselves and others customers reflects a positive change, since the language suggests responsiveness and service to persons. Certainly, in proper context, treating persons as customers is not only reasonable but morally appropriate. But which persons are served, and in what ways? Such market-based language prioritizes efficiency over equity and self-interest over common interests—which when overdone can be morally perilous.

Customers or Citizens?

Consider the difference between customers and citizens. The concept of citizen is most at home in the political and civil spheres of life. Though this language has its own limitations, in its first sense citizens are to be treated as equals. The fundamental political manifestation of this equality is the understanding of one citizen, one vote—and beyond that, the rough equality of voice and participation in political and civil life. Thus the importance of campaign finance laws, and pleas for reform of the present system: Persons with more money should not have undue political voice or power. In addition, political and civil rights of citizens establish a common ground for participation—as equals.

In parallel fashion we ask, Are customers equal? In a rudimentary sense, all persons should have the right to hold property and to buy things in "open" markets—race and gender, for instance, should not exclude persons from buying or selling products. But in a much more important sense, consumers are not equal in the market; rather, dollars are equal. Each dollar has the same voice (and power) in markets. Since consumers/customers do not enter the market with the same quantity of dollars, they do not inherently hold equal voice or power in the market.

This fact is not so morally problematic when discussing Beanie Babies or television sets. As Michael Walzer aptly describes in his Spheres of Justice, there is nothing wrong with a market sphere in which dollars "vote," if money's power is not allowed to have undue influence in other spheres of life—as long as, for instance, the basic liberty, security, and welfare of all citizens are established.

Yet here lies the problem with the proliferation of market principles and practices into other spheres of life. In a good and just society, money must not have predominant influence in how we view or treat a voter, patient, parishioner, student, client, or person in need. While the language of marketing may well help increase efficiency, it is inadequate for addressing—indeed, it is not constructed to address—genuine need, equality, or the greater good.

Needs and Wants

In the economic framework, consumers/customers enter a market—whether it be for bread, clothes, or any other good—with their "tastes and preferences" already established. That is, in the most basic model of economics, consumers or customers know exactly what they want. Even advertising should not have any formative impact on tastes and preferences, though it may serve the more humble purpose of giving information about a product and thus helping people realize how it addresses their own desires. What people want is not necessarily distinguished from what they need, and individuals are the only ones properly suited to determine their tastes and preferences.

Such assumptions are not so troubling when considering preferences like cotton vs. polyester or hot dogs vs. hamburgers. In two important senses, however, wants-vs.-needs is morally significant.

First, in a literal world of customers, no public discussion could take place about what people should properly desire. If in the market "the customer is always right," what would that mean when patients and students and parishioners are treated as customers? There is an inherent conceptual discontinuity between the market for beer and the market for health care. Shopping clerks are not expected to interfere with beer drinkers' brand preferences, but medical doctors train for a decade in order to provide an informed perspective on medical and surgical care. Analogous arguments can be made for professors, clergy, and other "trained" professionals. From Aristotle's polis to John Wesley's discipleship groups, leaders have long recognized that we humans need moral communities to help us figure out what else we need. The point is that we do not always know, on our own, what we genuinely require. In health care, education, religion, and other spheres, "the customer" is not always right.

The second issue of wants-vs.-needs is distributional. In a literal world of customers/consumers, there is no way to distinguish between the genuine, basic needs of impoverished persons and the luxury-wants of the affluent. As one recent, vivid example, the demand for luxury condominiums in a Colorado resort town has literally crowded out local service employees from living near their work or community. Economists have long noted that market-based principles and practices are good at creating efficiency, but the market mechanism has no direct concern about equality. In fact, because the market provides returns in proportion to persons' economic resources (land, labor, or capital), markets often exacerbate inequality.

Well-Lived Lives

Seeing ourselves primarily as customers is morally reductive and perilous. Cynics, even if they agree with my assertions, may shrug their shoulders and dismiss the proliferation of market principles and practices as "inevitable." Yet that is the easy way out. Alternative, fuller, and better moral perspectives will be more complicated to develop, but they are possible.

The challenge is to think creatively and carefully about what role the market economy and market values should play in our society. There is no one set of language or practice that will answer the question. Moral language—including religiously informed perspectives—can and should be part of forging public policy that allows the market mechanism to function without allowing it to dominate our public or private life. Within such a moral and policy-based discourse, the framework that helped Sen earn the Nobel Prize deserves particular attention.

Sen calls his wider framework the "capability approach." He suggests that economic principles and practices are an integral part of, but not the dominant framework for, well-lived and meaningful lives. Public discussion should focus not on economic goods and services for their own sake, but rather on how those commodities enable people to live better within their particular societies. Public deliberation and policymaking should focus on increasing vulnerable persons' capability to function in their societies. Economic products, to be sure, play an important role in attaining a decent quality of life, though what things any particular person needs to function well differs substantially.

Focusing on human capabilities rather than on economic commodities is more than rhetorical flourish. At the same time, a focus on human capability, agency, and well-being does not diminish the importance of careful economic thinking or of prudent and efficient economic policies. Nor does it seek to criticize consumption or the enjoyment of material goods. Rather, it reminds us all of higher moral ends for ourselves and our society, including guaranteeing fuller freedom and equality for all citizens.

Market principles and practices, rather than being value-neutral, favor efficiency over equity, wants over needs, the affluent over the rest of us, and self-interest over common interests. Market-based language, therefore, should be part of—but only part of—moral reflection about what makes for well-lived lives and good societies.

DOUGLAS HICKS is an assistant professor of leadership studies and religion at The Jepson School, University of Richmond (Virginia).

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