Lettuce and Sex

The same people who boycott farm produce can't take the New Right's boycott of "Three's Company."


The Coalition for Better Television (CBT), led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon—although now retired to the sidelines—has been striking terror into the hearts of our messengers employed by the media. CBT suggested to its members that they boycott the products of firms sponsoring television shows that CBT considered undesirable.

The situation was appraised by columnist Les Brown in Channels magazine:

Zealous to achieve a positive end, the coalition has resorted to means that raise moral questions of their own. It has crossed the line of healthy citizen involvement in adopting an action which, though legal, inevitably leads to the silencing of voices and the vanquishing of the creative and journalistic spirit. The coalition intends to clean up television by censoring it.

Hodding Carter III, quoting Brown, delivered his own observations in the Wall Street Journal:

The preacher and his crusade have the fervent, open support of the Moral Majority, which automatically produces frothing at the mouth by people of my political persuasion. We tend to see, or at least pretend to see, a revival of McCarthyism behind every reassertion of the old-time religion and a slide toward fascism in every small step back from some of the wretched excesses of the go-go days of doing your own thing. An honest-to-goodness national campaign by right-wing moralists raises the specter of the political apocalypse for some of us.

These are heady judgments—censorship, fascism, McCarthyism, questionable morality, political apocalypse, vanquishing the creative spirit. They sound like the desperate cry from someone under deadly attack, rather than the dispassionate and reasoned statements one expects from those who report and interpret the facts.

In truth, however, they are the plaintive pleas of many members of the press, a group that for the last decade or so has generally failed to see what is going on in the world. Members of the group have been busy building up and reporting on media events like the Santa Barbara oil spill, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the Mediterranean fruit fly and have missed the big picture. They have also been busy protecting and expanding their own rights, while they have often ignored or actively supported the decline in the rights of others. There have been other voices out there crying in the wilderness, but most media people have had their hearing aids turned off except when listening to each other. Now, reality has hit them, and they are confused.

Irving Kristol once observed that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Some members of the media think they are now getting mugged. Whether they transcend their liberalism will depend on whether they understand what is happening. So far, it does not look promising.

Normal Lear, for example, fears censorship and has risen in righteous wrath and produced a film, not about Archie Bunker, but about different yolks for different folks. His characters comment on eggs (not on the face, but on the plate), how they like them prepared, and how they don't. They note that eggs can be served fried, scrambled, sunny-side up, poached, or in several other ways. Lear finds that people differ in the way they like their eggs; each of us ought to be able to enjoy his eggs his way.

This is no startling revelation. The little gem is a part of human wisdom enshrined in several aphorisms, such as one man's meat is another man's poison; some like it hot; Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean; and I'd rather do it myself.

All of this would make it appear that mass media liberals are correct in their efforts to head off censorship at the pass and leave people free to choose, to coin a phrase. The problem is, however, that the liberals are late to arrive on the scene and, indeed, have often been ardent advocates of a homogenized society in all areas except their own.

Look at their two major complaints: boycotts will destroy the freedom to choose, and the efforts of the Coalition for Better Television produce a form of censorship. Neither is correct.

Take boycotts. When civil rights groups saw fit to boycott the buses in Montgomery, and labor and church groups were boycotting Farah jeans, California lettuce, and J.P. Stevens fabrics, where were the voices objecting that these were violations of the freedom of individuals to choose among alternatives? Such voices were faint, and justifiably so. This is freedom to choose.

When a person buys a shirt, he considers many things. He may ask if it is pretty, strong, stylish, made in Hong Kong or Terre Haute, made by happy workers or virtual slaves, produced by a business with factories in South Africa, manufactured by a firm that pollutes the environment, or whatever. Beauty, taste, and the desirability of the conditions under which a good is produced all lie in the eye of the beholder. To buy or not to buy, that is the question; and all of these conditions may be considered in reaching a decision. Some think the South African connection is important; others do not.

When people choose the goods they like, they may do so individually or collectively. Each may privately select some brand of peanut butter, or collectively they may choose to join with the Lions Club, Baptist Church, or Wilderness Society in buying or doing what these groups promote.

Companies try to make buyers aware of the availability and the good features of their wares. They advertise. Other producers or interested parties may tell of the bad features of these goods or how their goods are better. They might claim that other pain relievers lack buffered strength, the Corvair is unsafe at any speed, infant formula kills children in other countries, and so on.

After considering these many factors, people then choose. Some may believe that the features stressed by boycott promoters are compelling, and they may choose not to buy. J.P. Stevens or Willie Farah might have argued, just as convincingly as Les Brown and Hodding Carter's liberals, that the boycotts against their products were immoral, stifling the creative spirit to design and produce fabrics and clothing, an intrusion of moralistic do-gooders upon buyers and sellers of goods and labor in a free market, and an example of McCarthyism, censorship, and fascism.

Economist Ronald Coase has pointed out that the market for goods and the market for ideas are quite similar. In each case, people choose among the goods or the ideas offered and take the ones they find most desirable. Some are good; some are dangerous. Why is it sensible to deprive people of cyclamates but permit them to read tracts and books that are socially, religiously, politically, or economically much more damaging? Ideas can be far more dangerous than goods. In the last decade alone, 2,000 people have died in Northern Ireland largely because of publications and ideas relating to religion and politics. Cyclamates in over two decades of use have killed no one.

Walter Wriston told the Society of Newspaper Editors in 1979 that they were not defending freedom of speech, except as it narrowly applied to themselves. He suggested that there is another form of speech that is in dire need of protection: it is a variation on the theme "Money talks." Our longing for a good can be expressed in glowing language or with our willingness to part with our money. Buying and selling, employing and working, are forms of expression as much as is speech.

Government has said, however, that no matter how much a person wants to work (or buy a job) and is willing to speak or express his desires by offering many of his hours for a modest amount of money, he will not be allowed to make this statement if he must give more than one hour for $3.35. Simply put, it is illegal to work for less than the minimum wage. This is a restriction on a person's ability to speak with his actions, though we all know that actions speak louder than words.

If someone wants to sell oil or rent his apartment, or if he wants to buy peanuts, cars, labor, or legal services, various levels of government have laws that set or significantly alter the prices he receives or pays. His freedom to buy and sell is often severely restricted. People cannot freely speak their piece with price, so we get false messages. The media, however, have usually been unmoved by these restrictions.

Rather, television seems to its producers and participants to be different. Thus, Les Brown can imply that advertisers and producers should hang tough and put principle above profit in continuing to offer the shows that CBT opposes. Producers are admonished not to let mere money come between them and artistic benefits to society.

Yet is there really anyone out there in radio or television land who honestly believes that Flamingo Road, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Three's Company are being offered by the networks and sponsors by advertisers because of their social or artistic merit? These shows have made it through the Nielsen ratings and the periodic network shuffles because they attract more viewers and sponsors than do competing shows, and viewers mean money. That is the way the market works, and that is the way television works.

When CBT tells its members that they may want to rethink their priorities, suddenly members of the media tell us this is forsaking motherhood, apple pie, and square dancing. What has happened is that the folks who were good at producing Brand X programs have suddenly discovered that their brand may not be the leading one any longer. Producers of these shows might want to talk to Willie Farah, California farmers, Lee Iacocca, or producers of adding machines, flammable fabrics, or mechanical watches. Business owners know that tastes change, sometimes irrationally or because of boycotts; but when people are free to buy or boycott, businesses' complaining and wailing are less effective than changing.

When people change their tastes for television programs, though, this is viewed as a different matter. High principle is supposed to demand that the producers be allowed to continue offering the old product. Otherwise there is a serious intrusion into matters of fundamental importance. No freedom, no creativity, just coercion.

Norman Lear tries to tell us that people are different, but that is exactly what CBT is trying to tell us. That is also what business leaders have been trying to tell us for the last two decades, as Ralph Nader has tried to see that everybody is forced to buy the product that Nader likes best, such as the interlock seat belt. One is tempted to wonder whether Mr. Lear grasps his own message. Like most of us, he appears to believe that if others can choose what they like, they will choose what he likes, for all sensible people will like what he likes—but it ain't necessarily so.

What, then, about the second complaint, the charge of censorship? It looks as if CBT is trying to censor the programs that people would like to watch. If some of the programs are taken off the air, that would seem to be conclusive proof. But there's many a slip between disgust and the clip.

A censor is not just somebody who examines some good, service, or activity to see if it meets some standard of quality or purity; he also has the power to see that others are forbidden to enjoy it if it fails the test. CBT does the former: it judges quality according to its own standards. But it cannot do the latter: it cannot forbid others to buy and enjoy the programs it dislikes.

A difficulty arises in that, because of CBT actions, a program may be canceled. This certainly looks like censorship, but that is a loose use of the term. Bonanza, The Rockford Files, and The Mary Tyler Moore Variety Show have all gone off the air because network executives believed that they could not attract as many viewers as could the programs that replaced them. If this is censorship, then we need a new word for real censorship.

Consider an analogous case. We have unlimited wants for goods, but we also have limited resources to make or acquire these goods. This means we will not be able to have all the things we want, and maybe not even all the things we think we need. If we get some things, we will have to do without some other things. But doing without is not necessarily being forbidden to buy.

The same rule applies to television. There is a finite number of channels and of hours in prime time. All the programs that people would like to see cannot be shoehorned into these slots. Some programs will not make it, not because of censorship but because of an overriding law of the market that says these programs have less desired content than do other shows. But if they can attract enough support, they will probably be shown again.

If people are truly concerned about censorship in television, a more likely culprit springs readily to mind. Congress has declared that the radio and television frequencies belong to the public and that the Federal Communications Commission must therefore regulate their use. As a consequence, we have had only three major networks, considerable delay in the spread of pay TV and cable TV, and rules prohibiting certain programs altogether and forbidding other programs during certain hours. These regulations do not allow for the differences that Norman Lear likes and a free market would recognize. They amount to real censorship.

Another area where censorship has been alleged is in reporting of the daily news on television. Once again, however, there is a limitation at work here—not censorship. The television evening news has about 22 minutes each day and can report on less than 1 percent of the quantity of material in that day's New York Times. What 1 percent will be chosen, and what 99 percent will be "censored"? The people who put the news shows together do not view themselves as censors, and they are not. Viewers may not receive any information about the stories that are deleted, but this is because of the physical limitations of time rather than any legal limitations forbidding the broadcast of these stories.

There is the very real problem that viewers are getting news that has been filtered through the world-view of the program's newscaster and director. Further, the news that does make it may be inaccurate, as economic journalist Tom Bethell has argued the CBS reports on inflation have been. But people are getting the news they love to hear. If they were not, another producer would offer them a different array of stories. It may well be that television news and news reporting are the best examples of Gresham's law we are likely to find. Bad news has frequently driven out good news, and bad news reporting all too often appears to have driven out good news reporting. But we get these results because of private tastes and not because government has forbidden either good news or good reporters.

Outside of television and the press, we find that true censorship has been widespread elsewhere in the markets for goods and services. Consumers are forbidden to buy cyclamates, automobiles without seat belts, children's clothes that have not been treated with flame retardants, and a thousand other goods. Workers are required to buy a particular type of insurance/retirement plan (Social Security), and they cannot work for less than time-and-a-half for overtime. All of these are forms of censorship, with government deciding what people must or cannot do with their lives, their time, and their property. It may appear that this is similar to what CBT is trying to do, to deprive others of the television programs that CBT finds objectionable. But CBT has not called on that greatest monopoly of them all, government, to ban these programs.

Many television producers and reporters implicitly accept most, if not all, of the market restrictions cited. They select people to interview on their news programs and choose subjects for their entertainment programs to assure viewers that these restrictions promote the "general welfare." But when anyone seeks to promote the "general welfare" by restricting the activities of the media messengers, what seemed to be desirable preaching appears as unconscionable meddling. The Rev. Jesse Jackson can call for a boycott of the products of Coca Cola Co. and the public interest is served; but let the Rev. Donald Wildmon call for a boycott of the products of a sponsor of Three's Company, and reporters tell us the Republic is in danger.

People who are so unperceptive hardly deserve the support they frequently solicit. Fortunately, there is an even better reason not to worry about them. There is no wolf at the door; such efforts as the CBT's are only viewers expressing their tastes.

There are two broad lessons from all this. First, each of us tends to see his case as unique. Seldom is that warranted. People may join together in groups like the Sierra Club and encourage each other to buy environmental purity instead of drag racers. Or they may join together in groups like the CBT and encourage each other to buy products made by sponsors of programs they like instead of products of sponsors of programs they do not like. But no one is forced to join either group. As Coase noted, the market for ideas is symmetrical to the market for goods.

Second, there is a difference between private choice and action that is required by government. The free market relies on the former; the political market, on the latter. The two are dissimilar and in many ways asymmetrical. The former is based on individuals choosing where to work and what to buy, constrained by the wishes of others as reflected by price. There is no free lunch, but if you will pay the price, you may have the lunch you want. And people buy and sell only if they will be better off by doing so.

The public political market, in contrast, is based on using government power to take from one party and give to the other when the latter is not willing to pay the price required. There still is no free lunch. If you think you are getting yours free, someone else thinks he is getting his free; but neither lunch is free. He will pay for yours, but you will pay for his. The consequences are easy to predict: costs will be higher, and neither party will be happy.

These rules apply to the press as well as to the market. The Founding Fathers saw clearly when they wrote the First Amendment that people should be free to choose among religions and ideas. The fact that they did not say that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the market does not keep the principle of liberty from applying equally well to free choice among goods. The market is like the press; both produce what people want. With a little bit of luck, the press may see the point. Then this supposed ill wind may blow much good.

Hugh Macaulay teaches economics at Clemson University.