On a couple of occasions recently, I’ve been with a group of people doing what consumers commonly do: bitching about the companies that sell them a product or service. It might be a bogus new monthly charge from their bank, gouging fees by their cell phone provider, jacked-up rates from their property insurance company, or crappy, insolent customer service from just about anywhere.
When these conversations occur, I always ask: well, what have you done about it? Have you actually shopped around for a new bank, or cell phone provider, or insurer? There are lots of them around, and they are supposed to be competing for your business. When a customer service rep treats you like a bothersome fly, have you taken your purchasing power elsewhere and let the company that employed the jerk know why? If you haven’t done any of these things — and most people sheepishly admit they haven’t — you really don’t have much of a basis for complaint.
The theory of capitalism presupposes that consumers won’t mindlessly consume whatever is offered to them. Instead, they will make thoughtful decisions about what to buy, based on a comparison of the cost, quality, and other benefits of the products offered by competing businesses. Through that careful decision-making process, responsive companies that provide quality at a competitive price will be rewarded, and their overpriced competitors that peddle shoddy goods and services will wither and die. If the consumers don’t make educated decisions, therefore, they aren’t fulfilling their rightful role — and their inattentiveness is promoting bad practices and allowing bad companies to stay in business.
Don’t look to government to fill the educated consumer’s role, either. Government regulation is always after the fact, and often is ineffective. It will never replace the consumer who zealously guards her pocketbook, reads her bills, questions fees and charges, and is willing to shop around for a better deal.