Morality and the Market

Like a lot of some Americans, I am thinking about purchasing a car/truck during this Memorial Day weekend.  The question I’m confronted with is whether I should consider purchasing a vehicle built by one of the automakers who sought and ultimately took government money as part of the recent auto bailout.  In other words, should I buy a GM or Chrysler product? 

I’m torn.  On the one hand, I think it is important to vote with your feet (or your dollars in this case) and punish corporations that act immorally even when it is in their self-interest.  And rent-seeking is certainly immoral in my view.   

On the other hand, it is in my narrow self-interest to purchase the vehicle that best meets my needs in terms of price, quality, reliability, etc. regardless of the behavior of the corporation (or at least within some bounds – I’d never buy a product if I knew it had been manufactured using slave labor.  But this just begs the question of what the bounds are, suggesting that it is not narrow self-interest vs morality but a sliding scale about which acts one should punish at personal cost vs. those one is willing to overlook for pecuniary and other less-than-enlightened interests).  

It would be nice – but easy – if Ford best fit the bill so that I could have my cake and eat it too (indeed, maybe I’d be able to trick myself in that case into thinking I was acting in a morally superior way when I was merely satisfying my narrow self-interests).  But if Ford doesn’t, what should I do? 

It would be a lot easier, too, if I were rationally ignorant about the collective action problem – then I wouldn’t have so much angst about taking a moral stand at possible individual expense knowing that it is likely to have no impact as a sole action.  Indeed, the collective action problem is a huge difficulty for libertarians who believe that social change is best achieved without using the coercive power of the state.     

So, I’m flummoxed at the agora!

7 thoughts on “Morality and the Market

  1. I just now got back from signing a contract on a new Honda, and I didn’t even shop other brands, so this one is a semi-hypothetical to me, but why not just see what your personal preference for punishment is?

    In my view, there isn’t a collective action problem here. If you put a price on not doing business with collectivists, then don’t buy from them. If you don’t, then feel free. I myself think the institutions will die anyway, and I wouldn’t want to be stuck with one of their vehicles.

    So far as I can see, the market solution has already been rejected by the government, or GM and Chrysler wouldn’t be in business now anyway. Is the thought that somehow principled people have to go on beyond the costs coercively imposed on them by their government and inflict even more costs on themselves voluntarily? I just don’t see the argument for that.

    It would be different if I thought they were, say, effectively subsidizing the costs of their cars in virtue of their TBTF guarantee. But I doubt that’s much of a factor in any case.

    Why can’t the libertarian position be just to act on your principles? And why should there be only one principled punitive response?

  2. I can’t give you advice on how to make yourself feel better about your purchase, but the Honda Ridgeline is a handy truck. Its kind of an office worker’s pickup in that its got a single frame, independent suspension, 6 cylinders and other attributes that will make real offroaders/haulers laugh at you, but will make your bum and your family grateful.

    I think it was assembled in Alabama, if that’s important.

    1. Anonymous, your comment brings out how arbitrary these “buy American” nostrums are in the first place. You’re right: if you want to help fund American jobs in Alabama or Ohio, buy Honda!

    2. I’ll consider the Ridgeline; I think highly of Honda vehicles. But I might just get my old beat-up car fixed even though the repair bill is likely to be very high (close to the point at which it starts to make sense to buy new).

  3. Sven,

    Is that because it was a bad choice or because it will suggest something about me that our readers wouldn’t like 😉

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