“Can the Australian consumer movement be saved?” Stephen Mayne wrote in Crikey yesterday. He bewailed the defunding of the Australian Consumers Federation – but otherwise seemed to describe an advocacy sector that has matured, specialised, been institutionalised and is continuing to refine its operations.

Veteran subscribers will know of the tensions that have always existed in Crikey. Stephen wants to save the world. I don’t mind doing that – but I also like throwing squibs. And I’ve got to toss a few my old mate’s way.

If Australian consumers were getting seriously and systematically ripped off, they’d organise. And they wouldn’t need taxpayers’ money to do it. If enough people were affected, they’d be able to fund themselves.

Stephen is a capitalist. He largely supports the free market. So he should go and sit on the knee of granddaddy Adam Smith and listen to his wisdom once again. Smith could set him straight with just three lines:

  • People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.
  • It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
  • Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.

The truth is that producers need consumers to survive. That means that it’s in their interests to look after the people who purchase their goods and services.

There’s a further quote of Smith’s Stephen should also consider – not from The Wealth of Nations but from his lesser known Theory of Moral Sentiments:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it.

And maybe some final remarks:

The man of system… is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it… He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard.

Eamonn Butler observed not that long ago on the Adam Smith Institute’s blog:

You need to look after yourself in order to look after your neighbours: self-interest is a part of what makes a good society possible, not its antithesis. That unity of interests, so natural to Smith and his contemporaries, is harder for some people to grasp today, now that Marx has so heavily poisoned our thinking about what truly drives commerce.

So if we’re being ripped off, we can join together and do something about it ourselves. We don’t need to take public money to fund professional activists – with all their ideological baggage and prejudices – to do it for us.

Peter Fray

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