Free-market capitalism and the invisible hand of market competition does not always yield the best result. Except for the one percenters who rest easy in first class, anyone who has recently braved the unfriendly skies in an airplane can tell you that market forces are blind to human happiness.
President Jimmy Carter de-regulated the airlines and set free, like doves from a cage, a flock of fond hopes. A wider diversity of options would be presented to the public; consumers would select the options that best suited them; air travelers would get better service for a lower price. That’s the pie in the sky we were hoping for.
Hopes of this sort are based on Adam Smith’s notion of the invisible hand of the free market. It’s a naively optimistic biological way of thinking that arose about a hundred years before Darwin: random variation under survival pressures will produce creatures with greater fitness than any merely human intelligence could design.
But look at the result. Spirit Airlines introduced the bare fare. Some people, they correctly supposed, will go for the lowest prices, even if it means giving up all the extras: meals, drinks, overhead luggage space, leg room. This clever move put pressure on the other airlines and set off the process of un-bundling. Previously, your air fare included all of these things in a bundle; now, if you want them, you’ve got to pay for each of them separately with an additional fee. Given the financial pressures that they face, most people “choose” (are forced to accept) the minimum they can tolerate. Only a small minority of very wealthy people can afford to travel in style in first-class seats.
The lion’s share of the market is controlled by a few giant corporations, and the consumers—poor, innocent, chubby lambs—are left to squeeze their bellies into the narrow space between two arm rests. Passengers behave more like prison inmates, and flight attendants react like bus drivers trying to maintain order on a psychiatric ward.
What went wrong? The invisible hand of the marketplace does not know always (if ever) know best. The free-market capitalism is not “free” in the sense that it reliably supplies a greater quantity and quality of choices without anyone having to strain their brain. In the case of the airlines, as in so many other cases, low-price predators are free to feed on vulnerable human bodies. The best and finest things are “free” to wander like lambs in Jurassic Park. Human beings become commodities, boxed in like freight packages.
Free-market capitalism often yields the lowest common denominator not only in products, but also in customs and manners. In the not-so-good old days, young women working as stewardess were expected to be attractive (to men). The era had a certain charm, but women (and workers in general) deserve better.
So imagine a world where men and women flight attendants are happy in the knowledge that they really are stewards who protect and care for something, as shepherds care for their flocks. This might be a rewarding job, a good job. And it might be understood that as a passenger one is expected to behave according to high standards of politeness and decorum. Flying by airplane might even be restful and refreshing; it might feel like a treat.
Instead, we’re left with material for cell-phone camera YouTube videos that are fit for the Jerry Springer show and the worst of reality TV. Free-market capitalism is a jungle: it has no eyes or ears, no care at all for the best and finest things, the human things.
We shouldn’t take this slap in the face sitting down. If we can squeeze our way out of our cramped seats, we ought to stand up and make sure that the hands that control the market get connected to a human brain.
Note: This post was inspired by an episode of Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, report by Josh Mankiewicz: Turbulence.
It’s sad to see this show cancelled. Excellent programming often loses out in the Darwinian struggle for existence: another casualty of market forces.