“Voting With Your Dollars” Is an Antidemocratic Illusion

The notion that we can change the world by “voting with our dollars” has become popular among progressives. But it’s a fundamentally antidemocratic idea that has more in common with libertarianism than egalitarian politics.

Using organized boycotts as a political tool makes sense in some situations. But altering individual spending habits shouldn't be the go-to way to bring about change. (Unsplash)

Free to Choose, published in 1980 by Milton and Rose Friedman, is a clear and concise introduction to a whole series of reactionary economic arguments. If you’re a socialist who wants to understand what the enemy thinks, it’s a good place to start. In one crucial passage, the libertarian duo argues that we can exercise more power through consumer decisions than through political action.

When you enter the voting booth once a year, you almost always vote for a package rather than for specific items. If you are in the majority, you will at best get both the items you favored and the ones you opposed but regarded as on balance less important. Generally, you end up with something different from what you thought you voted for. If you are in the minority, you must conform to the majority vote and wait for your turn to come. When you vote daily in the supermarket, you get precisely what you voted for, and so does everyone else.

In the hands of the Friedmans, this is an argument for greater “economic freedom.” The less money the government taxes away to pay for social programs governed by imperfect democratic mechanisms, the more you have to spend in the marketplace getting “exactly what you want.”

In the decades since, the idea that we “vote daily at the supermarket” (or the supermarket’s online equivalents) has become popular even among progressives who would abhor the Friedmans’ political conclusion. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen some version of this conversation:

“Company X has done something terrible.”

“Well, I’m never buying their products again!”

Some have announced they’re “boycotting” Goya or MyPillow because of the reactionary politics of these companies’ CEOs. Others have proudly declared they “don’t buy from Amazon” — even though the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is spearheading the ongoing organizing drive in Alabama, has explicitly declined the call for a boycott.

At times, this “individual boycott” impulse manifests in especially absurd ways. When the supermarket chain Wegmans ended up on boycott lists because they sold Trump-branded wine, Trump supporters flocked to Wegmans and made sure the wine sold out for weeks. When #DeleteUber hashtag activists got a significant number of progressive rideshare customers to stop using the company to protest the company’s behavior during anti-Trump protests, the big beneficiary was Lyft — a company whose major shareholders included Carl Icahn and Peter Thiel, both advisers to President Trump.

Using organized boycotts as a political tool makes sense in some situations. But the idea that altering individual spending habits is a go-to way to bring about change is indistinguishable from the Friedmans’ core premise — and that should cause any progressive to take a second look.

“Voting With Your Dollars” vs. Actually Voting

The first and most obvious flaw with the idea of “voting with your dollars” is that the distribution of economic “votes” is wildly unequal. Taken seriously as a theory of change, the working-class majority of society might be the beneficiaries of change, but they can’t be the agents of change.

One problem with this picture is that even if well-off progressives support economic ideas that would benefit people at the bottom of society, it’s deeply unlikely they’ll prioritize these issues over more ephemeral cultural concerns when “voting with their dollars.” When we literally vote at the ballot box, on the other hand, the working class has the ability to cast the majority of the votes. When workers “vote with their feet” by organizing at the point of production and going on strike, they cast all of them.

None of this means that electoral campaigns and labor organizing are always or even usually successful. Capitalists and the politicians who serve them have a number of well-worn methods for both breaking strikes and diverting voters’ focus from the class war to the endless culture war. But these electoral campaigns and labor organizations take workers onto terrain where they have a much better chance of winning. Consumer activism is vastly less promising.

When I debated libertarian economist Gene Epstein on a related topic in 2019, he emphasized that low-income people do control a massive chunk of the wealth of our society when all of their incomes are pooled together. That’s true. The problem is that when we “vote daily at the supermarket,” we’re at our most atomized, and the pressures to “vote” based on issues unrelated to any change we want to make are routinely overwhelming.

The Friedmans are right to note that in most contexts, we “vote for a package rather than for specific items” (the obvious exceptions being ballot measures). But they’re wrong to claim that at the supermarket we get “exactly what we want.”

Think about the minimum wage. Polling evidence has shown for years that the majority of people support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Florida last November, a ballot measure to implement a $15 minimum wage succeeded even when Trump won the state. So why, following the Friedmans’ logic, didn’t those who “voted daily” at regionally popular supermarkets like Publix and Winn-Dixie simply select products sold by companies that paid their workers at least $15 an hour? Wouldn’t that raise the wage floor without any need for political action?

Part of the reason it didn’t is that the Friedmans are wrong to suggest that “voting daily at the supermarket” isn’t about “voting for a package.” In fact, the packages consumers “vote” for while browsing the aisles at Publix have more stuffed into them than the packages voters consider when selecting representatives at the ballot box — and the factors that would be relevant to changing the world through consumer decisions are the ones that are the most deeply buried within that package.

If Breakfast Cereal Company A pays its workers more than Breakfast Cereal Company B, a given consumer’s decision about which one to buy wouldn’t just be a referendum on what they wanted the wage floor to be. It would be a referendum on which cereal tasted better, which one was cheaper, whether they were willing to be the jerk who had to tell their kids they couldn’t get the cereal they liked because their parent cared so much about what people they didn’t know were making, and a lot of other things that it’s psychologically implausible to think are going to matter less than politics to the average stressed-out consumer spending perhaps five to ten seconds standing in the cereal aisle deciding which one to stick in the cart. And all of that would be true even if the cereals sold at Publix had big stickers on them indicating the hourly wage of each company’s lowest-paid worker. In the real world, doing that kind of research on every item on a grocery list would be a bizarrely time-consuming process — and in many cases, a flatly impossible one.

Workers have power at the ballot box, where political issues are front and center and the number of people lining up on each side matters more than how much money is in anyone’s pocket. They have even more power on the job, where they can grind everything to a halt until their demands are met.

To be sure, boycotts can be quite effective when carried out by a well-organized mass of people with concrete goals in mind. This works particularly well in contexts like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where the boycotters lived together in a well-defined geographical area and could see each other honor or break the boycott and exert social pressure, or when striking workers use a consumer boycott of scab-made products as an auxiliary tool to workers exercising their power on the job. The international boycott of apartheid South Africa played a structurally similar role as an auxiliary to the liberation struggle waged by the African National Congress (ANC).

But geographically diffuse customers encouraging each other to engage in long-term “boycotts” of a long list of companies for a long list of reasons, detached from any realistic strategy or even well-defined goals, simply isn’t in the same category. Trumpeting individual consumer decisions feeds the culture war. It doesn’t win meaningful reforms.

We vote with our feet when we go on strike. We vote with our votes when we participate in elections. When we “don’t buy” from some companies, we aren’t voting with anything — and the idea that we do is an unhelpful distraction from strategies that can actually empower democratic majorities. Don’t buy it.