In my post on whether America is ungovernable, one comment from CJS stuck out. It illustrates what I think is a common misconception of the average consumer, who sees a Starbucks on every corner, chooses between Microsoft and Apple for their operating system, and chooses whether to shop at the Super Wal-Mart or Costco each weekend.
A free market seems to have its own form of democratic majority rule. It may be a majority of money, but your small sum may be as ineffective at changing the actions of a business as it is at changing the actions of a government.
This view looks at the free market as a lowest-common-denominator, winner-take-all system, when it is the exact opposite. When it comes down to it, any need will be met if the conditions are right.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an engineer, and I work in the electronics industry. I’ve worked at big companies, I’ve worked at small companies, and most recently I worked [and continue to work] for a small company that was acquired by a much larger company. In my role (customer-facing), I’ve seen the ins and outs of business at all levels.
One thing that you see about many small companies is that they work hard to define a niche that they can fill and compete in. At the same time, larger companies tend to use their size, economies of scale, and greater resources to find very large market segments where their advantages allow them to overwhelm their smaller competitors.
I think of that small niche company as a military special forces unit. They’re the SEAL unit. They can deploy quickly, they can accomplish jobs that nobody else can get done, and what they do well, they do better than anyone. But they have very limited capacities. You’re not going to ask them to project force across an entire theatre of battle. The large company, however, is a carrier battle group. When they decide where they’re going, you join them or you get out of the way. They have the power to change the game. But they’re not as nimble. They can’t go in 15 different directions at once. They have enormous power, but they must make strategy in broad strokes, not in fine lines. The SEAL unit won’t defeat a carrier battle group in open combat, yet nobody in their right mind will claim that they’re not a formidable fighting force to accomplish the right-sized objective.
To push it back to the original point, if you have a need and a budget, you have two options. If the big company has something that fits your need, you’re in luck. And as CJS says, if the big company doesn’t have something that fits your need, you’re probably not going to get them to change their mind without a compelling story. But it doesn’t end there. There are entire industries devoted to picking up “the scraps” not serviced by the big companies. They might be a bit more expensive, but they’re there.
Leaving electronics, this is a common refrain all through the business world. If business were democratic, like our government, all restaurants would be McDonald’s, all beer would be Budweiser, all cars would be GM, and all computers would run Windows and use Internet Explorer. In democracy, everyone votes on what everyone else will have access to.
But the free market isn’t democratic. There is no single entity from which you are voting to have your needs met. You have competing entities trying to earn your custom. If I want something cheap, known, and tasty, I’ll stop at McDonald’s. But McDonald’s doesn’t make a burger like St. John’s does. I may drink Miller Lite out of nostalgia for my college days, but The Bruery is a bit more my speed. I love my Ford truck, but I like the fact that I could buy (at varying prices) all sorts of small-production automobiles — and someday hope to buy or build a Shelby Cobra. And while I use Windows for most of my computing, I browse with [free] Firefox and do quite a bit with [also free] ubuntu Linux — not to mention all the options out there that I’ve encountered in business (QNX, VxWorks, Solaris, etc etc).
How powerful is the free market? Well, in a free market, even if what you want is illegal someone will supply it to you. Whether it’s drugs, or sex, or just a bacon-wrapped hot dog, the market will supply what is in demand.
Democracy is a method to work together to make joint decisions. The free market is a place to trade value you’ve created (often money, the proxy for such value) for value others have created. In both, a lot of people choose the same thing. The difference is that in a market, people only choose for themselves. In a democratic government, people choose for themselves, their neighbors, and a whole host of people they’ve never even met. In a market, choosing differently than the majority limits options somewhat, but you can still get your needs met. In a democracy, choosing differently than the majority means that you get what the majority wants you to have.