The Consumer Republic: Rights Of Passage

Hell hath no fury like a customer scorned. That truism was dramatically illustrated last month when American Airline pilots chose the heavily booked President’s Day weekend to stage a sickout. At issue was the company’s recent purchase of Reno Air, whose pilots belong to a different union and work for a lower wage than their new American brethren. Sensing a threat to their six-figure salaries, American flyboys caught the flu in droves.
Not that the seething crowds at terminals across the country much cared about the details. Knowing they had tickets for flights that weren’t going anywhere, they shouted abuse at beleaguered ticket agents. At JFK Airport in New York, the cops were called on to ease the uprising. Not even baggage handlers serenading passengers with Sinatra ballads could soothe the savage beast in Miami. “The pilots should be arrested and put in jail!” one infuriated ticket holder shouted. Once upon a time, employers had to hire Pinkertons with clubs to bring striking workers back in line. These days, they need only feed them to the customers.
It’s incidents like these that prompt consumers to demand their “rights.” Even now, there is legislation before Congress which would give air travelers the right to recoup twice the price of their ticket if their flight is delayed two hours, and three times the cost for a three-hour delay. Other rights consumer champions are considering include the right to be informed of the reason for a cancellation or delay and the right to a full refund up to 48 hours before flight time. But why stop there? Don’t we deserve the right to choose between peanuts or pretzels? How about your money back if the flight attendants run out of orange juice in the middle of the flight? Or the most precious right of all: the inalienable right to more legroom in coach?
Consumer bills of rights are all the rage. Assuming that Congress ever gets around to dealing with legislation again, it’s sure to once again address the proposed “Patient Bill of Rights,” with its guarantees of access to doctors and treatments which have eroded under the reign of the HMO. The bill is an ironic coda to the healthcare debacle of 1993, when the nation recoiled from giving government bureaucrats the power to tell us how, where and from whom we could receive our healthcare. But that was before we found out that giving HMO bureaucrats that power was as bad–and perhaps much worse.
Indeed, the notion of rights is so ubiquitous in our culture that it’s easy to forget they’re a relatively new idea, a mere 200 or so years old. Yet their origins are far enough away that we also forget they are not some vague laundry list of entitlements, but began as specific political freedoms due to all men (and men alone) as divinely created creatures of reason. In this country, where such rights were first enshrined in a constitutional document, it took some four score years to extend them to slaves and another half-century for women to get their full share.
At some point, rights entered the economic realm: the right to a living wage and–however much inconvenienced consumers may resent it–the right to strike for it. More recently, we’ve seen the notion leap across species, as advocates declare that animals have rights, too (though I’ve yet to learn of a lion that recognized the rights of an antelope).
Now, with the rising tide of consumer rights at the end of the 20th century, there seems to be the idea that we are not only free to pursue happiness, but that we’re entitled to get it. If my rights now include life, liberty and airplanes that take off on time, I don’t see why it should stop there.
The fact is, consumerism is filled with disappointments, inconveniences and annoyances. Why shouldn’t there be, say, a Computer Buyers’ Bill of Rights. Like everyone else, I’m resigned to the inevitability of purchasing a new one every two or three years. That’s progress. But I find that, thanks to state-of-the-art software crammed with features I neither want nor use, my sleek new laptop takes longer to perform functions that my old one did more or less instantaneously. If I shell out a couple of thousand for a faster computer, don’t I have the right to expect it to work faster? I’m writing my Congressman! And how about an Area Code Bill of Rights–a lifetime guarantee that I will not have to dial 10 digits to call my neighbor across the street? While we’re at it, let’s throw in the right not to be disturbed during dinner by telemarketers. Telcos, don’t tread on me.
We can all empathize with the poor honeymooners who were not only forced by the American pilots’ sickout to scramble for another flight to the Caribbean, but also–oh, the horror–sit in separated seats. Yet it would seem that dissatisfied consumers already have the most essential right of all: the right to take their business elsewhere.