The limits of consumer choice

It’s acceptable for consumers to use software that edits out nudity or bad language from a DVD movie — but they had better leave the commercials and promotional announcements in, according to legislation adopted by the House of Representatives this week.

Here is the full story.

It is easy to see how this differential treatment might be efficient. Sex-edited DVDs increase market value by giving some parents a choice. Yet at the same time ads in DVDs help fund new issues; if consumers found the ads too burdensome the DVD makers would leave them out (admittedly the marginal consumers may not represent the interests of the market as a whole, but this is a special case).

Yet many people — myself included — feels a twinge of disapproval, or perhaps even slight rage, on reading the quotation above. It reflects how our intuitions are programmed to reflect views about autonomy and control: “How come prudish moralists can remove artistically vital movie segments, but hip culture fiends cannot eliminate the offensive abominations known as commercials?”

The prudes gain control, the artists and film directors lose control over their product, and the culture fields are stuck with their initial level of control. It seems that only the “unworthy” gain autonomy, therefore the idea must be a bad one. Yet, as stated above, the policy probably maximizes economic value.

The bottom line: Our moral intuitions have only a very loose connection to long-run efficiency, especially when impersonal market forces are involved, and someone bears an annoying cost (i.e., commercials) in the short run.

Addendum: One of my readers cites the long-run elasticity of prudishness, in an attempt to reconcile our intuitions with efficiency. If edited DVDs lower the cost of being an (interfering) prude, they may not be so good after all.


Comments for this post are closed