Hail to the SA consumer

December 8th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The South African economy cannot be said to be performing to its potential. But in one important sense it is performing well – for consumers. Those with income or borrowing capacity will not find the economy wanting when they come to exercise their spending choices over the holiday season.

The shops will be well stocked and able to meet their every demands and desires, be it for essentials or luxuries supplied from all parts of the world. They will not lack for bread or toilet paper or for wine, beer or spirits. Or lack for wonderful world class entertainment at the theatres and movie houses. The book shops will be well stocked for those who still regard reading as entertaining and valuable. Excellent restaurants of all ethnic persuasions will be open to them, but may require an advance booking, given the competition from foreign tourists, who are showing their increased appetite for what we enjoy at the prices we pay.

This is as it should be. Successful economies gained their cornucopias by putting the demands of consumers in first place. That is preventing producers, farmers or factory owners or avaricious rulers or ecclesiastical orders or soldiers to decide what is to be produced. And when consumers largely rule the economy and producers are required to respond to them, economies flourish. Doing it the other way round – for the state to put the interest of producers, including those employed by them – whose own well-being is always threatened by competition – is a recipe for economic failure and for stagnation and corruption and the waste of the opportunity to consume more.

A consumer-led economy need ask very little of the state. The State and its officials will not be called upon to design industrial policy or determine development plans, policies that require foresight that is simply not available to even the best informed and least self-interested official. What the effective State has to provide is the protection of contracts freely entered into and the capital of those who have saved and puts their capital and skills to work, hoping to satisfy their customers and be rewarded for doing so.

The state should also ensure that the success or failure of businesses, large and small, is determined by their sales to customers and the costs of doing so. Not where financial success is dependent on an ability to negotiate a morass of regulation and relations with powerful officials. This system inevitably advantages bigger business over their smaller rivals.

A consumer-led economy is a continuous process or trial and error, of firms learning and adapting to unpredictable circumstances. The winners and losers for the consumers’ spending power emerge – they are not chosen by planners. South Africa incidentally, since 1994, has spent hundreds of billions of rands – perhaps over 400 billion rands of them – in subsidising industries of one kind or another with taxpayers’ money or tax concessions, money that could have been put to much better effect by consumers, especially poor ones.

The South African government alas appears only too willing to continue to put producers and officials first. For example competition policy is directed to serve industrial and labour policy rather than protect consumers.

More important for economic development, given that education and training precedes the ability to produce, earn and consume more, it is tragically the educators, the producers, who are first in line when the huge government budgets for such purposes are allocated. Were the taxpayer to pay the fees to enable all those desperately seeking education and training to attend private schools, universities and training establishments, of their own choosing, the valuable customer would come first. And the outcomes in the form of additional employment and incomes would be far superior.