In 2017 I went down the ethical cell phone rabbit hole. I didn’t do anything like buy a phone — mostly I just reacquainted myself with the ways the elements of a phone are embedded in dysfunctional, oppressive, and murderous global systems.
I learned there is a phone called a Fairphone that considers itself an “ethical cellphone.” I guessed immediately it wouldn’t be available in my area, and I was correct. The main reason is obvious: insufficient local demand.
“Tyranny of the majority” is a phrase in political philosophy usually meant to indicate the possibility that in contexts of majority-rule, minority interests will get steamrolled.
Conceptually, advanced consumer economies should be consumer paradises where it’s the opposite of majority rule. Everything we might need or want would be for sale, because the existence of people wanting and needing is what causes the market to provide.
So I’m always a bit surprised to crash into the obstacles created by the fact that I often want what other people do not want, and do not want what other people want, which tends to lead to my things being simply unavailable.
The fairphone is a sanctimonious example — mostly I’m talking about garden variety things people spend money on. I would like a portable way to listen to high quality terrestrial radio — surprisingly difficult to access beyond the context of a car. I would like to hail a taxi on the street — in my city, this used to work great, and now it doesn’t, because obviously. I would like clothes that have a bit of stretchy fabric for my body shape but aren’t athleisure-wear — not easy to find. I would like to go out dancing at like 6:30pm, not midnight, but that is evidently not something enough other people want to do.
In the 90s, I noticed that there were TVs available for under $100 and I thought OK great, when my mom’s TV gets old that won’t be a problem. But by the time her TV got old, capitalism had moved on: now the only TVs available had some new and better tech than the old “cathode ray” and now they all cost hundreds of dollars.
It’s always striking to me when the law of supply and demand is held up as one of the more fundamental, universal, or well-established laws of economics and human behavior, because we are surrounded by things — especially in technology — that get less expensive the more people want them. If everyone wants a laptop, laptop prices will go down.
Note that I do not mean that examples falsity the law of supply and demand. It’s the presence of what Mill called “disturbing causes”: the more people want a thing, the more money the producers of the thing can invest in new methods and technologies and the more affordable the thing can be. Except - as with the TVs — when “the thing” becomes a different thing altogether, and everyone buys that, so that is what’s available.
Anyway, I’m not saying there is any problem to be fixed, and I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that from an abstract point of view, it’s striking that a system based on the idea that each person should be able to choose what they want for themselves is also a system where “what everyone else is doing” determines a lot of the texture of your experience.