Lately I've been more and more frustrated when I hear people responding to their distaste for problematic organizations by refusing to spend their money there. I mean -- it's fine if you don't want to shop at Walmart. That choice in itself isn't, I think, particularly harmful. But it bugs the hell out of me when people think that's an effective, or especially a sufficient, form of protest. There's a premise in Libertarian capitalism that, since people are basically smart, given a totally free market we'll gravitate towards the best choices for our future. The premise is that we'll vote with our dollars to elect the best available collection of resource providers, for our own well-being, the well-being of the economy, and the well-being of the world.
There are a few reasons that this premise is horribly, horribly wrong.
There's something hugely problematic about the idea that intelligent people necessarily make good decisions, or that making bad decisions necessarily implies that you're less than normally capable of evaluating situations. It's very well established that there are situations in which people reliably make bad decisions -- because of the way the choice is presented to them, because of how we think of priorities, because we don't have all the information or don't have the time to invest in fully exploring the implications of every decision we make.
Successful institutions know that. They at least are capable of looking on Wikipedia (same link as above), and often can afford to hire their own psychologists to construct experiences designed to lead consumers to make decisions that benefit the institution as often as possible. Unless we live in a world in which literally everyone's interest in every context all the time are exactly the same, that means institutions actively work to get people to make choices against their interests.
So on the biggest possible scale, if everyone were doing "Vote with your dollars," it would fail miserably.
It's not really collective action
Dollar voting gets its appeal because it resembles some successful forms of collective action: strikes, protests, and, most blatantly, democratic voting and boycotts. But "Vote with your dollars" doesn't really ask people to join together and make a conscious, deliberate effort to affect a specific problem. It suggests that, if everybody keeps in mind that they should probably sometimes not spend money at certain places or on certain things, collective action will just happen.
I've seen people pull together collective action campaigns, and it's damn hard. Somewhere in every successful collective action campaign, there are a handful of people doing a huge amount of work to keep the effort focused, pointed, and coherent. That's because collective action that seeks to change something is necessarily pushing for some specific change in normal behavior. The kind of collective action that emerges naturally without any strong central organization -- like the harassment of women who create online content (trigger warning: depictions of physical violence) -- is collective action to resist change and enforce the status quo.
Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with choosing not to shop somewhere, or buy something, that you have a problem with. But believing it serves as a meaningful form of protest -- and, especially, deciding it's enough protest -- means the idea of dollar voting is neutralizing the efforts of people who might otherwise contribute to change.
It derails/overrides discussion about real problem-solving mechanisms
Dollar voting, and its close relative "If people didn't want it, they wouldn't buy it," are incompatible with legislation as a form of problem solving. The easiest way for a large body of people to make a change in the marketplace is to make use of democratic government, an institution that is literally designed to do that. In America, writing a letter to your congressperson about a problem you see is significantly more effective than deciding not to buy a thing you might otherwise have bought. It's even more effective to try and organize in your community to let your government know exactly what you expect of them.
Dollar voting creates a weird attitude, like "We don't have to get the authorities involved in this," which is not a good attitude for individuals to have in approaching problems with institutions. Off the top of my head, I can think of a lot of good reasons not to call the cops if I'm having an argument with someone that involves something technically illegal. There would be even more good reasons if I weren't white, didn't pass as male,[1. I'm nongender, but assigned male at birth.] etc.
But for three very important reasons, responding to corporations and other institutions by involving the government is not the same.
- If you call them, they don't show up at your house with guns.
- They know that their job, specifically theirs, depends on enough people like you thinking they should be allowed to keep it.
- You have no power to control the way corporations behave -- or, insofar as you have any such power, you have that power through the mechanism of the government.
This part is my biggest problem with dollar voting. It encourages activist-minded people to bypass institutions in our society that are, theoretically, there for us to exercise control over the way things are done.
There are other big problems -- like the fact that most brands with a strong moral identity are owned by institutions that control brands of a huge variety of moral identities, which sets all of those institutions up to mitigate the shock caused by a sudden, brief period of strong disapproval.
And that's all voting with your dollars can really be -- a sudden, brief response to a powerful piece of news, that most people are going to forget about within a month or two. And if that effort had been channeled into (a.) setting up a core activist group and (b.) pushing for change through the government, which, again, is for exactly that, the burst might have some meaningful effect.
But it's great news for a brand facing bad press if the main response is "Everybody stop buying it," because all that means is some people stop buying it, for maybe a month or two, and a bunch of other people feel a warm, fuzzy sense of activism when they continue to not buy the thing they already weren't buying.