May 8, 2007

Want my Coke? Then pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

The great miracle of capitalism is the bewildering array of choices it offers to consumers, entrepreneurs, and workers. Capitalism, and the prosperity it has created, makes us freer by giving us choices. I can travel cheaply, communicate quickly, access more ideas, eat and drink anything I want, purchase the clothes I want, and choose the career I want. I have capitalism—and the political rights that capitalism both requires and strengthens—to thank for these privileges.

Every single student at this university participates in the capitalist system and benefits from the prosperity it creates. Even our most progressive, socially conscious, meat-abstaining, thrift store–shopping students are capitalists. When the University announces that it is able to build a new art center, gym, or dormitory, or that it can afford to expand and modernize its library system, do the students on the far left complain? Didn’t the generous alumni who give us these opportunities earn their millions by playing the game of capitalism?

It is safe to assume that some or all of that gift money is socially “tainted.” Some of it was made by investing in Coca-Cola, no doubt, or in one of the countless mutual funds that owns a part of Coca-Cola. Much of it, I’m sure, was made by businessmen who regularly flew on ozone-depleting planes made by Boeing, a major defense contractor.

Imagine what it would take to truly socially screen every product you use or purchase in a day. When you think of the process your clothes go through before they end up on your body; or your food before it ends up on your plate; or the new dormitory before it is an idea realized, funded, and completed, you begin to realize that social screening is a noble but impossible ideal. And so it is absurd to do what the anti-Coke campaign has done: arbitrarily choose an (allegedly) socially irresponsible company to “kick off campus.”

What’s more, such campaigns are undemocratic. Their participants judge that their social complaint is more important than democratic choice, even as they use the language of democracy and claim to speak for the mythical “student body.” If they are so certain that the students are on their side, why do they need to ask administrators to limit students’ choices? If there were any sort of consensus on the unacceptability of drinking Coca-Cola products, wouldn’t the dining halls have dropped these long ago due to their unpopularity?

One of the most democratic features of capitalism is that it allows consumers to vote with their wallets. I enjoy Coke, so I vote for it every day when I fill a glass with it in the dining hall. But just as the American public didn’t make the “right” choice when it reelected George W. Bush in 2004 (and so the Bush “regime” must be “driven out,” presumably outside of the democratic process that will drive it out naturally in 2009), I’m not making the “right” choice by drinking Coke. And so my self-appointed progressive nannies must step in to intervene with socially responsible Naked Juice in hand.

I’m on board with consumer-awareness campaigns that use democratic processes and free speech to inform me of corporate malfeasance. However, as soon as they decide that they know better than I what cola I ought to drink at lunchtime, and decide to use top-down political processes to force me to conform to their tastes, they have lost me.

I admire students on the left for their engagement with the very real issues of global inequality, poverty, and development. Some of the most basic insights of the left—that the value of an individual person does not vary according to nationality, that the powerless should be given voice and treated with decency, and that political freedom is meaningless if a family doesn’t have basic food and shelter—are values that should be universal. But these values are strengthened by and are arguably meaningless without the prosperity created by the market. Progressives do people no favors by trying to limit their options and interfere with their transactions.

Roger Waters, my favorite musician, complains in a song that capitalism has brought Pepsi to the Andes and McDonald’s to Tibet. It has also brought at least some of the people of these regions the wealth to purchase such luxury items—and, presumably, more food and clothing, better roads, better jobs, and the freedom of having options.

Capitalism isn’t perfect, and it isn’t sustainable without a basic social safety net, but it expands horizons and spreads freedom. It is preposterous for Waters, a multi-millionaire whom capitalism allowed to make Pink Floyd famous, to shed a platinum tear when some of the world’s poorest people get to enjoy a cheeseburger or hear rock music for the first time.

Similarly, the sort of unreflective choice-curtailing and capitalism-bashing engaged in by the anti-Coke campaigners and other leftist campus groups can only be called hypocrisy. It is rich, if you will, to see some of the most privileged and economically well-off young people in the world whining about the system that made every step of their lives possible. The most generous thing that can be said about these well meaning students is that they are biting the invisible hand that feeds them.