Why There’s Nothing Free About The Free Market

Recently, I endeavoured to read the UKIP manifesto. I’m not usually into fantasy fiction, but I’m doing a little investigation into UKIP and I thought it would make an interesting read. I found that they said, with regards to foreign aid, that they supported “Trade, not aid”, which to me makes the whole concept rather void.

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But they were very keen to say that they believed in free market enterprise. At one point, they say that they believe in “low taxation, enterprise, and fairness.” Leaving aside the fact that taxation drives fairness in our society (You think a society without an NHS would be fairer?) it still leaves the issue that free market enterprise, as we understand it, is almost invariably not free.

To start with, the balance of the world today was not brought about by any fair means. Many people who are wealthy today inherited their wealth, as opposed to earning it for themselves.

But lots of people just make it for themselves, and even so, their family probably made that money, even if they didn’t! I hear you say.

Well, a majority of rich people are rich due to circumstance, rather than their own merits. And yes, maybe the families of these rich people made that money…running workhouses…or owning slaves, for which they were reimbursed when slavery was abolished…
If you are opposed to slavery, then it seems to me that you have to be sceptical about the concept of inherited wealth. It has a barbaric history in many cases.

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We are often told by conservatives that capitalism is a gift for which we should be grateful.

And like most gifts you get, it was in a book.

The book was “The wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, and was held up as “The Bible of Capitalism.” It is the theory upon which all our relations, internationally and nationally, are based.

What is much less known about Adam Smith is that he wrote another book which he valued more highly, based on ethics. This one was called “The theory of moral sentiments.

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If more people knew that the founder of capitalism valued ethics more highly than capitalism, we might be living in a very different world now.

The theory of capitalism goes (briefly) like this:

If I own a company that makes chocolate bars (for example) then I can “compete” in the “race” with other companies that make chocolate bars. The idea is that, if I produce the best chocolate bars (the cheapest and the best tasting), then customers will buy my product, and it will become more popular.

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On the other hand, if I do not, then a rival company will get those customers, so I would have to charge less for my chocolate, or make it a better quality, in order to win those customers back. This is (supposedly) good for the consumer, because it means that standards are driven up by competition.

However, this is not how it works in practice.

The problem is that the theory makes the rather large assumption that we are all equal.

I wish that we were equal, but we are not. If you can look at the homeless man on the street and say that he is equal to Rupert Murdoch, then you have no idea what equality really is. Equality must be strived for, but it cannot be assumed.

But we stand a fighting chance! You might say in response.

Well, at this point, you’ve already lost the premise of the capitalist argument:  consumer choice cannot drive up standards unless all the competitors are equal, which they are simply not.

Let’s go back to the example with the chocolate- I want to compete on the market, and I use fair trade chocolate that tastes better than a Kit Kat (the Nestle owned chocolate bar) but does anyone seriously believe that my chocolate (even if it is a better standard, price, and fair trade) could compete with Nestle?

Of course not! Many companies own a share in their industries which make up an umbrella monopoly. The big names in chocolate, like Cadbury and Nestle, for example, own enough of the market that competition only really happens between those businesses. It is not a “free” market system, and does not drive up standards.

This is partly to do with brands and advertising- I could make a brand name for my hypothetical chocolate, and provide the best service to all of my customers. But, since Kit Kats are seen by billions of people every day, and Nestle has an audience for their advertising that is far beyond anything I can produce, they will dominate the market. What you end up with, is companies that are very very good at advertising, but not necessarily at driving up the standards of their products.

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Well, let’s ignore that, and say I push forward anyway. Let’s say that my company (by some miracle) starts to do well. I begin to earn £40,000 per year (very unrealistic for a small company) and things seem to be going well.

Well Nestle, rather than risk losing their monopoly, might want to buy me out. So, let’s say they wander up to me and (as has often happened) offer me £3 million to let them take over my company to make more Kit Kats. In financial logic, most people would take the offer of the £3 million: it is a stable £3 million, whereas the future of a company is risky.

Now, Nestle may own (along with other big chocolate companies) large swathes of the market without any interference from me. And they could compete with cadburys and other brands.

Well, it’s not so bad, you might say, at least the competition between those companies may drive standards up a little bit…

Or, they could choose another option. The companies could choose to get together and agree what price to set their products at. Sort of like agreeing to all cross the finish line at the same time in a running race, having disqualified all the other competitors.

In our example, Nestle may work with other companies to charge £10 for a chocolate bar that should only cost £2. So long as they all keep their word, they all make more money than they would if they were in competition with each other.

Luckily, the chocolate industry is actually spread between many different companies, whom, although big, can’t agree on much.

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The same can’t be said for the energy market- the famous “Big Six” energy companies dominate the market completely. They can agree on a price between them and charge what they like.

Another example would be the media- the big names of The Sun, The Express, The Mail, and The Times, are all owned by less than ten people. If they choose to, they can work together to destroy someone’s reputation. Since they dominate the market, no alternative voice or “competition” can be heard. The internet is gradually destroying this monopoly, but it’s taking a long time.

It is still an established fact that whoever Rupert Murdoch supports in the election in the UK, will win. The pattern is there.

And you want to tell me that this is a free market? What is free about it?!

The way to create a free market is to bring in a certain degree of regulation. A free market economy, as we understand it, can never be free.

Being critical of it can only drive it forward to a better system.

The Basics Of Financing Boobs.

As a teenage boy (I turned 18 the other week, for those who don’t know), I am often all too complicit in and, to my shame, unconsciously inconsiderate about what women go through in our society. Usually, the word “feminist” is enough to make most boys my age switch off completely. The word is immediately associated with a vague concept they can’t really grasp; being a woman.
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I am included in this category to some degree- I cannot truly understand what women go through. I know I am opposed to practices like cat calling and the general intimidation felt by women, but I don’t think I can ever hope to truly understand it. What I can better form a conception of, is the financial aspect of being a woman.

Why did I choose to talk about the financial aspect?

Well, in our capitalist society, money is something we can all relate to on a univocal level. It was by pondering the financial implications of being a woman that my rigor for feminism was recently reawakened.

If our world runs on money, then money seems like a good place to start for an understanding of equality.
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Women’s rights have come a long way since the end of the 19th century. The outbreak of the First World War proved how fundamental women were to society- many jobs like engineering, which had been regarded as requiring skills which women didn’t possess, were done by women during this period. It shifted a cultural conception.

[It is true to say that following the First World War, many of these women were forced back out of these roles- particularly if they were married (and thereby had another source of income in the form of their husband- a pragmatic move that was made by many single women and men, afraid of losing their jobs), but nonetheless, the concept had changed.]

This pattern of improvement has continued throughout the 20th century and has led to many different types of feminism- Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Eco-Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Individualist Feminism, and Cultural Feminism. And these are huge steps forward.

Feminism- the empowerment of women- is the only known cure for poverty.

It is often said that “You build a society like you build a house- from the bottom upwards: Build the foundations by helping the poorest in our society.

If we continue with this analogy, women are the support beams which hold the house together- they are essential and should be recognised in value. Give these beams a little strength to hold up the house: family planning, equal pay, mutual respect: and you can watch the floor of society begin to rise. It is a truly amazing thing.

Poster by See Red. London c 1978

Poster by See Red. London c 1978

Many conservatives have argued that our own society has gone past the point where feminism is required- “Aren’t we as equal as we are going to be?”

Absolutely not.

We will continue to strive for gender equality, just as we did in the struggle for racial equality. In the 1950s, conservatives were saying that the races were as equal as they would ever realistically be…

…well look how far we have come since then!

So, I want to highlight the issue of the cost of womanhood- which inevitably links to social factors, so is a good stepping stone for ‘would-be’ feminists to gain an understanding of women’s inequality.

To state it quite simply, the financial cost of being a woman is far too high; make up, shoes, and clothing. Most women’s clothing does not last a very long time when compared to men’s clothing, and tends to cost much more. Next time you go shoe shopping, look at the price difference between men and women’s shoes and try not to raise an eyebrow…it’s significant.

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Bras are a good example- men’s underwear costs about £3-5 (for a decent pair of boxers) – at most £10. For women, a decent, comfortable bra costs them a minimum of £20, but an M&S basics pack of two white bras costs £70, and that doesn’t include the price of her pants- that’s maybe another £5. The comparison is just ludicrous: can you ever see a man paying £25-£70 for a set of underwear? Come on!

But societal pressures on women are the reason behind this- a pressure to look good leads them to feel that they need more make up or fancy clothing. We men don’t realise how much we contribute to this by reacting better to “dressed up” women (even if we say we don’t) and companies are all too happy to exploit this little fact by hiking up the prices of women’s products.

It sounds like a “wishy washy liberal concept”, but how many women do you know that could go without make up, shoes, or nice clothing? Our society really has conditioned them to feel that they need these products. And “need” means that companies can get away with charging a much higher price.

Not just products, of course, but also services. I’ll cite the example of haircuts: Men’s haircuts cost £12 or less on average. Women’s haircuts cost at least £20, but more often closer to the £25 mark.
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But that’s because women have longer hair than men and don’t need it cut as often! I hear you say.

But that’s simply not true: on average, yes, women have longer hair. But unless all women had longer hair than all men, then you are not basing the price on the length of the hair, but the gender of the person. This is, in my view, normalized sexist pricing.

Well, so what? You might say. Men’s products cost things too, so why don’t women just boycott companies that overcharge them?

Well, not only would it be illogical- there are very few companies that won’t overcharge women, but our society also exploits women in a way that men are not exploited.

It begins as an archetypal view; “All women must be x”, “A good woman is x”, or “Real women have x.” This subsequent pressure- which men do feel, don’t get me wrong, but not to anywhere near as high a degree as women- leads them to become enticed into consumerism. The poet Laurette Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem called “The Woman Who Shopped” on the subject of women and consumerism: “Her thoughts neon, flashing on and off, vague in the daylight.”

Good for the economy! you might say.

Well, not morally justifiable in any way. Especially when you take into account that (according to 2014 Halifax research) women are paid 32% less than men on average. How did we end up in a situation where products/ services aimed at a lower paid group actually charge more than they would for a higher paid group? Are we honestly being conscious of our situation here?

And to make it worse, the government recently had a chance to overturn the tampon tax, but rejected it. They justified this by arguing that Tampons were a “luxury item.”
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From a financial perspective, the cost of having periods seems low, but is often varied and unjustifiable. The average box of 40 tampons costs around £3.50, which works out at about 10p per tampon. There are cheaper versions, but it’s not really something you can thrift on, because you do get what you pay for.

It might seem cheap, but bear in mind that a woman’s period lasts a minimum of 3 days on average, and the tampon has to be changed once every few hours- 8 hours is the recommended limit for the length of time one tampon should be in use. Any more time could be potentially damaging and unhygienic.

Potentially a minimum of 90p per period then. An injustice, but not a huge expense, you might say. But then factor in that some women (because they have to) use sanitary towels in addition to tampons. Sanitary towels cost an average of about 16p per towel, so that would put the price up to £2.34 each time she has a period. And these are minimum prices. A 6 day period will cost her much closer to the £5 mark.
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In financial terms, this may not seem huge, but they are an essential item, not a luxury. As such, they should not have the current tax status they do- and perhaps, in time, should be provided for free in much the same way condoms are provided for free.

Many “meninists” have drawn a comparison between sanitary towels and condoms or razor blades, but I completely reject these comparisons. A dull comparison, taken from a dense and insufferable movement.

A man can shave. He may be in a situation where he has to shave. But he can decide when he does so, and the shave itself is not beyond his control. A period is beyond a woman’s control; she can’t hold it off until next week.
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Similarly with condoms, a man (or woman) can choose to have sex. But they are not necessitated by their own biology to have sex- the sex will not happen regardless of their choices.

It is dependent upon their choices. A period is not something a woman decides to have, but something that she has to go through without any (non-drug based) control. There is no subsequent comparison, I can think of, that would be a fair analogy.

It is, therefore, not only a small financial injustice, but a betrayal of the 21st century principles of equality in Britain. You don’t force people to pay for their basic needs in the modern world. I think that in itself is immoral, let alone taxing it as a luxury.

But what about food? Food is an essential, but we charge people for that! I hear you cry.

Yes, you have to pay for food, but most moral people would not leave a person without food regardless of their financial situation. Sanitary towels and tampons are the same, and women should have access to them regardless of their financial situation.

It’s time we stopped financially punishing women for being women.

To take another perspective, why are tampons considered a “luxury item” when Jaffa Cakes, flapjacks, herbal teas, marshmallow teacakes, and houseboat spaces at a harbour are not considered “luxury items”? A tampon or sanitary towel is more essential than any of these things to a woman. It is an absolute necessity.
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But we need to get tax from somewhere! I hear you say.

Well, why not tax Jaffa Cakes, for example? A non-essential item. Or chase down the tax that companies refuse to pay? Did you know Facebook (the multibillion pound company) only paid £4000 in UK tax in 2014, because of tax loopholes?

Where are your priorities? If you say it is necessary to tax tampons, which women need as an essential item, but refuse to chase billion pound tax loopholes, how exactly do you defend that tax?

Women do not benefit from society any more than men do, so why should they be charged extra for essential items? And companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Starbucks benefit endlessly from doing business in the UK. They owe our society. Women, as a group, do not.

Those companies owe us tax- a woman does not owe us for being born a woman, and we should not be financially punishing her for her gender.

A saying has been going around that goes “No uterus, no opinion.”

I think it is round about the stupidest statement going around feminist groups at the moment. A man may be right or wrong on the issue of the tampon tax, but he has an absolute right to express an opinion on the matter. That is a human right- freedom of speech. To deny him (or any human) this, is suppressing his rights to the point where it makes us (feminists) look like fascists. Stop doing it.

We can say he is wrong if he supports the tampon tax. But if we try to censor his views, it only works to legitimize them and make us look like we can’t fight it out. We can.

It also risks isolating men who would otherwise identify with our cause. Would any woman reading this prefer that I hadn’t written this article, because I don’t have a uterus?

It goes both ways. The freedom of speech and the freedom to criticise that speech. Avoid being isolationist and you might not only end up defeating him: you could go one better and persuade him.

The cost of living is too high for anyone, and cuts to welfare are only making this worse. Welfare cuts effect women- particularly single mothers- the most. It is essential that someone stands up for women at this time. Men and women both need to help defeat this tax.

[Huffington Post]

[Huffington Post]


So go: write a Facebook status, do a blog article, share a picture, tell a friend, tweet about it- the tampon tax must go.

It is shameful that conservative politicians voted to keep the tampon tax as a “luxury item.” They put an unnecessary charge on people simply because they have a pair of boobs. It is abhorrent. It is discrimination. It is shameful to our society. And it will not change until you speak out. Just once will be enough. But do it: show you care: stand up and speak out.

The tampon tax will be the first to go.