Thursday, November 03, 2011

Goldline, Glenn Beck, and the Ethics of the Hard Sell: Autonomy or Psychology?

The company Goldline, sponsor of Glenn Beck's program as well as a number of other conservative talk shows, has been accused of running an illegal bait and switch operation. The charge brings up a fascinating and ironic question connected with the fairness of the free market so radically espoused by these talking heads.

The scam on its face is simple. Goldline lures in customers by convincing them that gold bullion is something they should acquire. Then, they talk them into buying collectable gold coins instead that are sold above their actual value. So, people think they are buying something as a safe investment when they are really being fleeced for something that will depreciate instead.

The reason the conservative talk show hosts are a part of the scam is that the people who listen to them are ripe for the plucking. They come in already believing that the country and world in general are going to hell. They listen to receive confirmation of their dark worldview and this leaves them open to conditioning for other beliefs. Obama takes a Republican health plan and puts it forward as a compromise. They call it evil socialism, their listeners believe it. Government sponsored death panels? Jack-booted thugs confiscating guns? Gay people recruiting children? They buy it.

So, you've got people who have a preexisting notion that the culture is collapsing, who are told that things are worse than they thought and told what to think and how to think about it. And then you've got the people seen as authorities putting commercials into their programs in a fashion that does not clearly delineate them from the other portions and those commercials tell them that when the world collapses, money will be worthless, they need to buy gold, lots of gold. And here's where I buy MY gold -- Goldline. so they call and are given the hard sell into buying something that will not do what they were led to believe it will do -- hold value better than their cash.

Is it illegal? Dunno. Is it slimy? Absolutely. Is it wrong? Oooooh. The marks could have said no. They were not forced to buy the coins at a terrible price. They agreed to do so. But, of course, the people at Goldline know exactly what they are doing. they are setting up a scenario in which people are psychologically primed and therefore much more likely to act in a particular way. Think of the old gag where you ask a person to pronounce T-W-A and T-W-E and T-W-I, then T-W-O. If you had just asked them to pronounce T-W-O without the others first, they would have said the name of the number 2, but because of the priming, if one has not heard the gag before, they pronounce it phonetically. It works every time. It's the basis for most of the illusions magicians perform. It's why movie music is what it is -- listen to the cello swells from Jaws and try to keep your heart-rate from increasing. We know it works and how to do it.

And so, the Goldline people know how to apply psychology to get people to act irrationally in a fashion that benefits them financially. If it was a matter of physical or psychological coercion, we'd say that the people were not free and the responsibility is on the person being coercive. But what if it is psychological manipulation, not coercion?

The conservative, libertarian line is caveat emptor, buyer beware. People are all self-interested and rational and thus the marketplace should be left alone because it is the shopper's responsibility to do his homework to decide whether this is in his best interest. The conservative beliefs of the victims are justifying their being shafted. The liberal line is the paternalistic approach in which the psychological manipulation is seen on a par with coercion and the act is wrong. But this removes the autonomy from the agent, it undermines our picture of ourselves as in control and responsible for our own actions.

So, in this case, which takes precedent, autonomy or psychology? Is Goldline's approach morally wrong? Suppose we look only at the hard sell without the psychological priming, like with time shares or used cars. Does that make a difference if we have good reason to think that it will work?