As a young man, I was not a car person. I was not interested in getting my license and not interested in owning a car. I relied on walking, running, and biking to get around. When I started work at Florida A&M University, I tried biking to work. My bike was destroyed, and I barely escaped serious injury. I decided that I just needed more speed, so I got a small Yamaha. After several near-death experiences, I decided I needed steel all around me and got a Tacoma in 2001. I was still not interested in vehicles and just took it in for service as needed. It had a few problems over the years, but the shop I went to generally did a good job and the prices were not bad. In the fall, it developed a mysterious hum that proved expensive, this got me interested in cars. Or rather, my truck. Being a philosopher, I naturally think of my experiences with the repairs in the context of a theory, in this case, capitalism.
Practical folks are usually not interested in economic theories. They mostly operate within systems that theorists crudely mirror in theories to criticize or justify the behavior of these practical folk. Consider, for example, capitalism. The theoretical ideal is that equals meet within the free market to engage in a fair struggle for success. In the case of businesses (broadly construed) the ideal is that they engage in battle until the businesses with the best products and best prices stand atop the corpses of their competition (with the invisible hand making this all happen as it should). In the case of the consumer, the ideal is that they engage as equals in the free market with these businesses, thus ensuring that they will get the best products at the best prices for themselves. The workers, within the magical world of the theory, also engage as equals with the businesses and work out a fair wage, fair working conditions, and fair benefits. Outside of the theory, none of this holds true. So, let us look at cars and capitalism.
As I mentioned, my truck developed a mysterious hum. At the time, I knew very little about fixing vehicles, but I did know how to google the symptoms. Based on the sound and apparent location, it seemed most likely to be a bad fuel pump—while my truck does not have many miles, it is 20 years old so I figured the pump could be dying of old age. The shop initially said it was my transmission, then went to the fuel pump. It was replaced and the hum went away briefly. It went back to the shop and now they were sure it was the transmission. That was replaced with a remanufactured transmission. The hum remained, though they insisted that it checked out on all the tests. This inspired me to finally learn about cars.
I bought several books and read them, watched numerous credible YouTube videos on repairs and maintenance, and learned all the parts of my truck. During this, I found that two hoses in the truck were damaged—one had a visible hole and cracks, while the other was obviously cracked. Mind you, my truck had gone through three “multipoint” inspections recently and the paperwork claimed that the hoses and all been properly inspected and were in good shape. So, I replaced those hoses and did more checking, finding various other issues. For example, the battery had not been properly secured and had been sliding around. Fortunately, no damage was done, and I secured it properly. The shop had changed owners over the years and seemingly not for the better. This nicely illustrates how the idealized theoretical capitalism does not match the reality.
In the theory of capitalism, the goal is to maximize profits. This just mirrors the “desire for undue gain” that Plato talks about in his Republic and Hobbes’ reflection on gain in his Leviathan. Capitalism, in essence, enshrines greed as good. Practical folks do not care about this theory, but they do want to maximize their profit—hence repair shops have a clear and well-known incentive to do the least work for the most money. They are also incentivized to convince customers that expensive repairs are needed even when they are not. For example, carefully checking the hoses in my truck would take time and not yield much profit. And failed hoses could mean lucrative repair jobs later. As another example, the shop went right to claiming that the fuel pump and then the transmission were the issue. To be fair, issues can be hard to diagnose, but the profit motive pushes businesses to go with the expensive diagnosis rather than testing fixes that would be much cheaper.
It can be argued that is all on me; the shop and I met as equal individuals in a free market, and they got the better of me. However, most of us do not meet repair shops as equals for two obvious reasons. First, most of us lack adequate knowledge to properly diagnose our vehicles and determine the necessity of repairs. As I mentioned, I had never had any interest in cars and only owned one to decrease my chances of being killed while getting places. But this ignorance has cost me. Ignorance would obviously not be a systematic problem if businesses were honest; while they might make honest errors, you would never need to worry about being deceived. That said, ignorance could still be a problem if you picked an incompetent business out of ignorance. As such, if you want to enter the free market and be able to compete, you will need to learn many things—while you cannot become an expert at everything, you can develop enough knowledge to make a better assessment of when you are being misled.
It could be objected that it is just obvious that people generally do not meet as equals in such situations; you go to a repair shop because you lack the knowledge (or equipment) to do the work yourself. In reply, I obviously agree that this is why people go to shops; but it simply serves to confirm that people generally do not meet as equals in a free market: one person or group will usually be at a significant disadvantage that can be exploited to maximize profit.
It could also be objected that shops which exploit customers will end up harming themselves. As Benjamin Frankin was reportedly fond of saying, honesty is the best policy. As one of my professors pointed out long ago, this is a utilitarian approach to honesty—it is not that honesty is right, it is that it is the best policy from a practical standpoint. While shops do sometimes suffer from being exposed, dishonest behavior persists. This is because if a shop comes out ahead, then being dishonest is the best policy when one assumes that the goal is maximizing profit. As such, it is wise to be on guard—everyone has a clear incentive to maximize their profit at your expense. While some people think that this is just another bad apple problem in capitalism, this is capitalism: the goal is maximizing profits and there is more profit in exploiting ignorance than in scrupulous honesty. If you think otherwise, you presumably just agree immediately with whatever the folks at the shop tell you and simply pay up with a smile, believing they began and ended with God’s honest truth. But I assume you are sensible enough to be a cautious consumer—you know that their goal is to take as much of your money as they can and your goal is to get as much as you can for as little as possible.
Second, when you need a repair you most likely need them far more than they need you. As such, you are operating at a disadvantage. Often you need your vehicle to get to work, to make the money you will need to pay for the vehicle. While you can leave to find another shop, they most likely have a waiting list of customers. You probably need the repair done ASAP, while you are just another job in the queue to them. If your car is having serious issues, then taking it elsewhere might require a tow or put you at risk. As such, you will usually be operating at a disadvantage that can be exploited to maximize profit.
This could be defended by pointing out that capitalism excels at creating and meeting needs (and wants). It is working as intended that there is a shop available to repair your vehicle that you probably need to get to work. What more could you want? Reliable and convenient public transportation? An economic system in which you are not dependent on a for-profit repair system?
If you are a good capitalist, you will be aware of this disadvantage and try to mitigate it. Conveniently, solving your ignorance problem can also help with solving your need problem: the more capable you are at diagnosing your vehicle and repairing it yourself, the less you will need to enter the marketplace to compete as an “equal.”