Tyler Cowen has been blogging about telemarketing at the Volokh Conspiracy here, here, here, here and here.

In that last post Tyler says:

YOU ARE EMBOLDENING ME: Being a contrarian by nature, the more you all attack telemarketing, the more I like it.

The ideal situation would be to have a market in telemarketing. That is, you could contract for how many calls you would receive, and what kind of calls. You might, for instance, get a discount on your phone service for allowing ten calls a month, or whatever. Plus we can imagine various kinds of intermediaries, perhaps computer-based in nature, to “screen” your calls, offering to take them at varying prices, based on your previous instructions.

I can imagine fifteen reasons why this is impractical, but I bet that lasts only for a short time. Europe has already experimented with lower cost phone service, if you are willing to hear an ad before you place a call (see my What Price Fame? on this, updates on where it has gone, if anywhere, would be welcome).

So five years from now we could have such a market. Now, does the do not call list hasten or slow down this development? On one hand, it may hasten it, by forcing telemarketers to buy consent. On the other hand, the blanket prohibition of the list may make it harder to arrange these future transactions. After all, you would first have to get your name off the list, I wonder how responsive our government would be, and how liability would work if there were mistakes, lags, etc.

I could imagine that a do not call list could make it harder to make the transition to a real market in unsolicited phone calls. In which case we are back to the do not call list as perhaps being a bad thing.

I think he’s right that we should have a market in phone-call access. Telemarketing isn’t all bad. Some people like to get these calls. Most of us wouldn’t mind an occasional interruption if it was for something that we’d be likely to be interested in, and/or if we could get paid for it a price we specify. And it’s an interesting question whether the Do-Not-Call list will help or hinder our path to this.

I currently think it will help, because before we can have a market in phone-call access, we need a legal framework that obliges marketers to comply with the wishes of the recipients. The Do-Not-Call program is a crude, but first, attempt at this.

We probably also need a similar mechanism to address e-mail spam. And, perhaps, even snail mail junk-mail since unwanted snail mail imposes costs on us, too. It takes our time to sort through, and if we get a lot of junk mail we’re more likely to miss an important message in the pile.

But, I think he’s wrong to consider this as a purely economic issue. I think there are rights involved and these should supersede consideration of whether violating them maximizes aggregate want-satisfaction. I think people should be able to avoid unwanted interruptions in their home by taking steps to declare which messages are welcome, which are not, etc. This should be respected, and violating these wishes is wrong, even if some people actually want interruptions and allowing interruptions would lead to more genuine want-satisfaction than a simple “No Solicitors” mechanism would.

To see what I mean, consider this: If you were to find that there would be an aggregate increase of true want-satisfaction if men forced themselves on women who said “No” (some of them really mean “Yes” and many of the men are really interested, etc.), would you advocate allowing it?

So, I agree that telemarketing can be a good thing, but I insist that it must be voluntary. I think it’s important to give recipients control of who can access them in their homes.


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