Against “Dollar Voting”

The notion of “voting with your dollar” is rather quaint, isn’t it? The platitude is spouted as if the ultimate solution to all the world’s problems is through consumers allocation of their capital. All the while, corporations run roughshod over the rights and desires of consumers. If this concept of “dollar voting” works as described, how can the sorry state of affairs for the consumer be explained? The processes which govern the production of capital are far more complex than simply reflecting the consumer’s purchase preferences. However, it is an idea promoted by individuals who think they are truly the brightest crayon in the box, bringing attention to an ignored strategy for quality of life improvement. Ah, yes, “dollar voting,” what a novel idea! Promoters of this strategy must be truly brilliant. In reality, the idea of “dollar voting” wielding any kind of serious power is, frankly, a complete farce. While an argument against “dollar voting” based on the complexities of economic production would be effective, there is a shorter path to exposing the fantasy of this notion.

Corporate Fund Allocation

A simple way “dollar voting” can be derailed is through corporate fund allocation. That is to say, in short, a corporation which offers a number of services can continue to sustain losses in the case of a single service which is relatively unsuccessful. “Dollar voting’s” efficacy rests on the assumption that products or services consumers buy will increase in number while products or services consumers buy less of will decrease in number. This is an incredibly inaccurate oversimplification which ignores the reality that a large corporation that offers a sub-par product can “outlast” a smaller competing corporation that offers a more desirable and more profitable product. Additionally, large corporations are able to take advantage of government regulations through lobbying in ways that smaller corporations may not.

Omission Lacks Presence

Omission is not a vote. Abstaining without making a little noise is not going to reflect anything to anyone. A lack of a sale is not the same as the deliberate avoidance of a product or service. However, the capitalist system is only equip to detect the former rather than the later. The distinction between omission and purchase can be made by analogy with positive and negative reinforcement1. In the case of a purchase of a product or service, one could reasonably consider this to be the onset of a stimulus in response to an event — the definition of positive reinforcement. By contrast, there are only very limited circumstances in which not purchasing a product could be considered the removal of a stimulus. Such cases where the omission of a purchase could be considered as such might be a new iteration of a product or service which has a drastic drop in consumers. Still, the message here is unclear. Is the product or service outdated? Is the new iteration insufficiently improved over the prior product or service? Is there a new competitor? Even in the rare cases where a criterion exists which would qualify the omission of a sale as negative reinforcement, calling such a thing a “vote” is an enormous stretch due to the lack of clarity the omission of a purchase symbolizes.

Lack of Alternative Products or Services

Unfortunately for the United States, there are many instances where “voting with your dollar” is an impossible task as a consequence of monopoly. Because certain corporations hold monopoly in the case of essential products or services, there is an inability to send a message through “dollar voting” in these cases. Consequently, these monopolies generally exist in industries where the product or service is of crucial importance to the consumer and has a significant presence in their life.

Lack of a Desirable Outcome

Amartya Sen expressed trepidation about the efficacy of dollar voting by arguing that agents who lack comprehensive knowledge about underlying goods and services cannot make a buying decision which benefits them. Perhaps the idiom “better the devil you know” summarizes this concern succinctly. In certain cases, lack of access to knowledge may cause consumers to attribute resources in a way that harms them in the long run — despite the reasonable assumption that this would not be the case based on their spending habits. To be clear, I mean “lack of access to knowledge” in the sense that certain knowledge is inaccessible to the general public as a whole, regardless of their education level.

Silencing of Dissent

In practice, the platitude “vote with your dollar” is often directed toward someone being critical of a product or service. The critic of this product or service is invited to “put their money where their mouth is” as if their “dollar voting” outweighs the efficacy of their verbal or written criticism. In reality, the opposite is true. In fact, as stated above, it is likely that omission of purchases without an organized articulation of grievances is nearly worthless. Ultimately, the weakness of this sort of attack rests in the fact that it is a circumstantial ad-hominem. If someone is critical of a corporation they buy products or services from, their qualification to make the criticism should be based on their knowledge. There is no logical relationship between a person’s willingness to buy a product or service and the accuracy of their criticism of said product or service — or the corporation who provides it. Arguments should be recognized on their merit as opposed to the status of their arguer.

Conclusion

This piece is not to say that individuals should not, with confidence, spend their money in the way that makes them feel morally comfortable. Certainly, how one spends their money in certain cases can have an impact. Likewise, personal satisfaction and comfort is as sound a reason to avoid the purchase of a product or service as the desire to see the product or service eliminated. However, comprehensive analysis and criticism of products and services which present issues can in no way be supplanted in importance by “dollar voting.” It would be foolish to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive, rather a person who spends their money in a given way should be encouraged to articulate why. Furthermore, persons who spend their money out of sync with their ethical position in no way compromise the logical force of their arguments against products, services, and corporations.


  1. It is worth mentioning, though entirely tangential to the subject at hand, that Alan Baron and Mark Galizio’s contend that the terms ‘negative reinforcement’ and ‘positive reinforcement’ are “ambiguous” and have “little if any functional significance,” here 

 
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