Saturday, August 28, 2004

Attack of the consumer clones

The unfortunately titled New Economics Foundation (presumably coincidentally named after Lenin's New Economic Policy) has released its latest report/survey which, as frequently seems to be the case, has received disproportionate coverage - eg: see the Times and the BBC.

Essentially, it seems to argue that because supermarkets have risen to prominence, and displaced small or independent shops, our high streets are in danger of becoming clone towns. Cue wonderful quotes by Andrew Simms (NEF policy director)

- Natural scientists since Charles Darwin have understood the value and importance of diversity in maintaining healthy and stable ecosystems. Clone towns imperil local livelihoods, communities and culture by decreasing the resilience of high streets to economic downturns and diminishing consumer choice.

How much more diverse could you get than a supermarket which sells thousands of lines of products by thousands of different companies? Indeed, not long ago, on the back of this book the media warned us that supermarkets offered us too much choice, which is somehow bad for us.

- H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell all wrote nightmare visions of a future world that would conform increasingly under unidentified totalitarianisms, and that would determine the life and consumer choices of the ‘masses’.

Is there any similarity at all between the life of an average consumer in London today and in Orwell's 1984? Simms has cleared jumped off the deep end here...

Good rebuttals by Sean Rickard in the BBC report (If supermarkets have grown big and strong and powerful, as indeed they are, it's by the choices made by individuals - not by anyone forcing anyone through their doors) and Richard Hyman in The Times (All major retailers of today were very small once and grew by delivering a more relevant offer, more often than their competitors. The chattering classes do their shopping at supermarkets and do not practise what they preach.)

Hyman's point is particularly important because often, when people criticise certain conditions in society (footballers earning too much, too many supermarkets) they ignore or do not realise that these conditions have arisen mainly because of the combined, voluntary actions of millions of individuals. To attempt to micro-manage the situation is to interfere in the free choices of millions of people.

This is report is yet another example to illustrate Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain theory.

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