Invaded by the Grays Page 6

But even with its dangers, and problematic as it is for dealers who work primarily person-to-person with their customers, mail-order---be it legitimate, gray-market, or otherwise---serves an important purpose. Millions of people in small towns and isolated rural communities have no other access to the goods and services big-city dwellers take for granted. They depend on mail-order in much the same way suburbanites depend on shopping malls. Likewise, specialty dealers in small towns must exploit all the potential that mail-order has to offer them if they wish for anything more than mere subsistence. The shop-from-home phenomenon is a big factor in the ever-increasing popularity of the Internet.

Free Marketing?
Political animals of most persuasions are required by the rules of their faith to pay homage to the "free market," that mythical state of economic bliss in which initiative blooms unimpeded, effort is amply rewarded, and the blessings of material well-being flow freely in all directions. In the hypothetical free market---hypothetical because it has never existed---we would all be free to buy or sell anything from or to anyone else in any manner we wished. A truly free market would not resemble so much the efficient and orderly movement of goods and services imagined by freshmen legislators in Congress as it would the children's game of "King of the Hill"---a working model of anarchy.

But the terror and anxiety of living in anarchy is too great a psychological burden for the average person to bear. Since the dawn of civilization we have organized ourselves into pressure groups---from simple informal partnerships and loose tribal alliances, to guilds and trade associations, to national political parties, and when all else fails, military forces---to torque the free market this way and that in order to make it more free for us and less free for them.

Follow the money trail and you'll find most rules and regulations are enacted to give someone an economic advantage over someone else, or to prevent someone from gaining an economic advantage over someone else. These laws are broken as soon as they're written. Is all this regulation of commerce really necessary? Maybe so, maybe not. Historically, we humans have certainly proved that if we can behave irresponsibly, we will: This is the prima facie justification, for example, of all environmental law. Without an external structure or a deep guiding principle, avarice spins out of control---the privileged and the powerful grow more so, the big fish eats the little fish, the bully stomps on the weakling, not because he must but because he can. The free market before which we genuflect becomes a regulatory Gordian knot.

In that context it's amusing to note the circulation of an ominous little document at the 1996 Winter Consumer Electronics Show: a letter from the so-called "Group of 31 Dealers" intended to coerce manufacturers to put the squeeze on retailers engaged in "aggressive advertising in national magazines." This group (if it is a group---Laura Atkinson says "It might be just one guy") is going after certain high-profile dealers who blatantly feature manufacturers' products in their ads---a lure, the group claims, for attracting business from outside their areas.

A few questions: If a retailer is enjoined from advertising the brands he carries, how can he pull in customers? Aren't retailers supposed to attract business? Isn't that how they survive? Does a car dealer have an unethical advantage if his ads tell you he carries Ford or Toyota? Would he be a better, more ethical neighbor to other car dealers if his ads read only "We Sell Cars" and he patiently waited by the phone for customers to call and ask exactly what kind of cars he sold? If manufacturers are free to engage in global trade, shouldn't local retailers and private citizens have the same right?

People can perform some amazing tricks with logic when it comes to protecting their own interests. The issue doesn't make much sense, but what does when you look at it in the cold morning light? Remember the guy who tore into Roger Skoff for "whoring out the line"? And the Manley Labs dealer in New York who screamed about a territorial invasion 600 miles from home? They both advertise frequently in the high-end press. Their ads share a boldface, large-type, three-word statement that makes their intentions unequivocally clear. It reads: WE SHIP ANYWHERE.