Who Am I to Decide What You Buy?



In a 2018 column defending President Trump’s tariff policies, conservative editor Daniel McCarthy mocked his free trader opponents for believing that “the harm to those whose manufacturing jobs are lost [is] outweighed by the good that comes from, say, cheaper flat-screen televisions.”


McCarthy sneaked in a point here that has much wider implications than the limited space it is given would suggest. In weighing the benefits of economic growth, he relied on his own assessment of the merits of flat-screen televisions, and decided that they are not as worthy of consideration as something else. The idea that economic growth is less desirable because it goes to things McCarthy deems unimportant exposes a serious lack of humility on his part.


McCarthy used an argument that is quite common. In this case, he used it to defend tariffs, but it is used on both sides of the political spectrum to justify interfering with the market. It’s the idea that to promote free markets is to promote the blind pursuit of material things that don’t truly make us happy. This effectively says that economic growth isn’t worth pursuing because it allows people to fulfill their wants in a way that, in the judgment of other people, is bad for them. We may have growth, we might get all of the conveniences of modern life, but these things are unimportant, even harmful. Maybe so, but the question that free market advocates always ask is: “Who am I to decide?”


I might have opinions about what I want in my own life, but that hardly gives me the authority to decide what others should want. Many people fully accept that individuals have the right to decide what to believe, say and do. Yet put those individuals into a group and have them make a few purchases and suddenly they aren’t given that same deference. If we promise to uphold people’s right to take significant and consequential actions like criticizing the government or choosing their religion, we ought not interfere with their right to buy what they want to buy.


You don’t have to agree with everything that results from free markets to support them. The difficult part about believing in freedom for everyone is extending it to people you don’t like. Just as we have to accept that in a system with free speech, some people will say things we find repulsive, we have to accept that in a system of free markets, some people will buy and sell things that we wish they wouldn’t.


Maybe you have a philosophical complaint against consumer culture. Fine. I might even be inclined to agree with you. But if you think that that philosophy gives you the authority to take money out of people’s pockets and put it somewhere you think is more important, you are doing more than critiquing the system. You are asserting the superiority of your own ideas and the inferiority of the public’s.


People who believe in freedom shouldn’t make arguments that make themselves out to be better at running other peoples’ lives than they are. Economic growth has given people more opportunities to pursue whatever they want. If you have complaints about the choices those people have made, they can be persuaded, but to oppose letting them make their own choices is arrogant.