For the past few days I have read about a squabble between Hershey’s, a well-known chocolatier with its own city in Central Pennsylvania, and Let’s Buy British Imports, a firm that has until now imported Cadbury’s chocolates for a market of appreciative Anglophile chocolate lovers. As a result of the court fight, British chocolates will no longer be imported and Hershey will seek to sell imitations of those British chocolates in the American market. Naturally, those who are fans of British chocolate, who have the means to pay for a premium import good, are unsatisfied with the ersatz American chocolate and want access to the real thing. As might be expected, there has been a mobilization of support for the free importing of fine British chocolate (I’m rather partial to the Cadbury milk chocolate myself, though the eggs tend to be the most heavily marketed product of their line that I am familiar with), which has cost Hershey a great deal of public good will over its protectionist stance. As is often the case, I would like to use this squabble as a way of entering into problems that are both more personal and also more universal in nature.
There are those who are ill-equipped for discussion about economics though with loud and strident voices who will likely condemn Hershey’s behavior as a failure of capitalism. This would be a grave dishonor to Adam Smith, for the corporate attempts to limit free trade by use of the courts is entirely contrary to the meaning of capitalism as a defense of free trade. It should be noted that Adam Smith was a firm believer in free trade, and that his belief in freedom was a result of his confidence in the efficiency as well as desirability of British trade goods during the Industrial Revolution. A desire for freedom and openness springs from confidence, while a desire for protectionist policies springs from fears of weakness and unpopularity. Those who feel they have something to offer relish open competition in the marketplace of ideas, while those who desire their own fiefdom and seek the protection of the law and the courts to protect that territory do so because they do not believe they will have a secure place unless one is carved out for them where they are guaranteed a market that they may not otherwise have apart from the protection. It is clear, for example, that Cadbury feels (rightly) that they have a market in the United States, one that appreciates its product and is willing to pay a premium for it. It is less clear why Hershey’s would feel threatened by the presence of Cadbury given its size and its own popularity, and the fact that it too has plenty of tasty chocolate that I (and others) enjoy eating.
The claims of a company about protecting its corporate turf generally sound ridiculous when they are translated into analogous situations. How much more outrageous would the position of Hershey be in seeking to prevent the importation of rival British chocolate be if it were viewed in a different light? For example, what if a large record label in the United States had decided (for whatever reason) that British music served as a threat to their profits and was able to gain an injunction against a company like Let’s Buy British which had established a successful business selling import copies of music by bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, and many others. What if Hershey’s told American consumers that it was unnecessary to buy these British products and that American imitations of British rock bands were sufficient for the American market. Such an argument would be patently ridiculous—plenty of people like all kinds of music, and there is a distinctive quality to certain bands that simply cannot be effectively copied, and furthermore the free competition of different styles of music allows for influences to be shared, as the Beatles and Rolling Stones and others were inspired by American blues and rock and country music, which they fused with their own local cultural background to create novel and interesting hybrids of wider interest. Surely, America was strong enough to withstand the “British invasion” of music, and to be better for it, and the same is true for whatever invasion of British chocolate we face as a country as well.
Yet I am not necessarily sanguine that in the absence of effort that my wants will be served by a company. An example should suffice. As a child, in lieu of taking drugs for my hyperactivity, my family decided to seek to manage my sometimes unmanageable levels of energy through limiting my diet. It was found that processed sugar was generally the source of my exuberance but that natural cane sugar was not problematic. Despite the fact that I grew up in Florida, one of the main states for growing sugar, at the time there were no natural cane sugar products available. As a result, my family engaged in what amounted to smuggling, where a friend of ours (now deceased) who was the wife of a British sugar farmer in Belize would smuggle over about ten pounds or so of unprocessed cane sugar twice a year during our religious Holy Day season when she would stay with my maternal grandparents. Throughout the year we would use this sugar for baking and tea, so that I could enjoy sweets without being a holy terror and climbing up the walls. It was perhaps the only time my family’s proclivity towards shady and illicit behavior ever served my own personal interests and well-being. Now, of course, raw cane sugar is a premium product sold openly in grocery stores, and I buy it there, as it took the realization that a sufficiently large market existed for such a product for the effort to be taken to make such a product, at a considerable profit to Florida sugar farmers.
How, then, is such a market to be recognized? If we wish for our wants (and needs) to be met, we cannot act alone. Rather, in order to obtain that which we wish, it is necessary to join together in such a way that the power of numbers can serve to influence the behavior of political and business and cultural elites. The closure of America’s markets to Cadbury chocolates has had a negative degree of feedback because people who buy premium chocolates have a recognized market and are generally inclined to make their dissatisfaction known, and the power of the purse is a strong one. The best way of finding something that one lacks is to bring attention to it, because people (and companies, and authorities) will assume that everything is alright unless it is made obvious that something is missing. The presence of a few loud mouths willing and able to make their dissatisfaction and unfulfilled longings, along with an equally vocal longing to help improve matters for a larger population can help build enough group cohesion to present a large and motivated pressure group of people who can become very unpleasant to ignore. Enough people with a given want and the means to procure that product if it were available will lead someone to desire to serve those interests. Sometimes, though, it requires that we make a little bit of noise, and shake up the corrupt and unsatisfactory status quo that tends to exist when people fail to really understand what others want out of life.