Dollar Democracy

It’s Black Friday here in the States, and now that last night’s gala of gluttony has worn off we can return in earnest to the real business at hand. So put away the turkey, wipe off that food coma, and put on your boots, friend: we’re going shopping.

Let’s head down to the local widget shop, where we’ll find widgets of all shapes and sizes. Large ones. Small ones. Widgets that come in all shades of vanilla, chocolate, organic, free-range, and those lovingly hand-made in the widget shop next door. We search the dizzying selection until we find the perfect widget at a price we can hardly believe, pay, wish the cashier well, and leave with a few dollars less in hand.

And just like that, we’ve missed an opportunity. See, purchases are more than just monetary transactions. They’re also a daily exercise in stuffing some metaphorical money where our mouths are. Every dollar we spend is a vote that exerts a tiny degree of influence on the merchant, entrepreneur, or philosophy we’ve just given it to. We rarely approach consumption as an exercise in democracy, but perhaps we should.

Even before heading to the widget store, we faced a choice.

Should we purchase widgets from a local merchant?

There isn’t a single answer. Online stores can’t match the atmosphere and “browsability” of local shops, but automation and highly-tuned distribution networks allow them to offer very competitive pricing.

  1. Yes: it preserves valuable brick and mortar shops in our community
  2. No: it’s time we took advantage of the distributive efficiency of the internet

And this is just one factor among many—the value of a local dollar, the value of supporting the retail sector at all—the list goes on and on. And then there’s the product itself, with all the complex factors it embodies. They range from relatively simple questions (Who produced it? Where was it made? What techniques were used to produce it?) to more complex (Will we support a producer employing distasteful labor practices? Are high transportation costs acceptable to obtain lower-priced goods from another region?), but few of them are regularly asked.

Instead, we look at price. As simplistic as they are, dollars and cents are easy to compare. If two otherwise identical widgets are priced differently, it’s hard to argue in favor of the costlier option. But dollars and cents provide only the crudest representation of value, and when a purchasing decision begins to incorporate disparities in a product’s quality or production the pendulum begins to swing.

Political elections come up once every couple of years, but I suspect that at least as much influence is exerted by the millions of dollar-votes that are cast every day. Too often they’re cast thoughtlessly, with no consideration given to the value that each one implies.

And so, on this most sacred of consumer holidays, do us all a favor. Buy into what you value. And never overlook the value of what you buy.