Any government has a responsibility to battle bad business – be it banks fixing the currency markets or rail companies fining passengers who are forced to stand in First Class due to overcrowding, to give two examples from today alone. Consumers are not a herd of ready victims, and they should not be treated as such.
But a Conservative government has even more of a responsibility to tackle cons and rip-offs. We are happy to call ourselves the party of business, the party of economic growth and the party of free markets, battling for the right for people and companies to trade with each other freely. That is right and proper – as Daniel Hannan recently recounted, free market capitalism has been the greatest tool for extending wealth, health and happiness in human history. But if we want the ideas we champion to continue flourish, we must also be willing to make clear that we reject those who give business, economic growth and free markets a bad name.
It is a mighty irony that the biggest threat to the free market comes not from the Left – the Owen Joneses, Russell Brands and assorted other protesters have failed repeatedly to gain any meaningful traction – but from within the market place itself. The fly-by-night companies who hide landmines in the small print, the utility firms who might as well replace their unhelpful “customer service” departments with a looped recording repeating “computer says no”, the corporatists who seek to use their power to place barriers in the way of new start-ups who might disrupt or even destroy their business model, and various others.
It isn’t inconsistent to see such behaviour as negative while still believing the free market is best. At their heart, these companies are fundamentally unfree and anti-competitive by nature – seeking to deprive customers of the information to make decisions, to prevent us seeking restitution for their mistakes and to prevent a smaller enterprise messing up their cosy arrangements by offering people something cheaper, better or both. They don’t just threaten to discredit an economic model, they dress themselves up falsely in its clothes while trying their damnedest to break its every principle.
The trick for conservatives is how best to right such wrongs. It’s easy for the Left – cap it, ban it or nationalise it. It doesn’t work, but it’s simple to explain in a ten second soundbite. For those of us on the Right, who actually want our solutions to solve things, the question is more difficult. We shouldn’t be completely allergic to setting rules, but we’re justifiably wary of unintended consequences and damaging distortions. The digital age may hold some of the answers – when companies try to hide dodgy terms and conditions, treat people badly or try to stonewall reasonable customer complaints, it is now the work of a few moments to alert the entire world to their behaviour. Each time one gets its fingers burned, it’s a caution to others. There’s a certain poetry, or elegance, to it, too – just as markets can help people, the people increasingly have the tools to help the market improve, too.