Who Is The Customer? – Kate Paulk

*I think this essay of Kate’s is very important because so many times people taking money from us by force (the IRS, say) and using it for things we would never buy, act like it’s for our own good, and we’re the customers who purchased the goods, after all.

Let us remember without the choice to be or not to be a customer there is no private property and no freedom of association.  If someone can force you to buy “insurance” because they think it’s for your own good, you’re not free.  If someone can prevent you from buying something, yes, even drugs, because they think it’s not for your own good, you’re not free.

There are several things I’d never buy or let friends/relatives buy without protest, but which their individual will still gives them a choice on.  I can persuade but not forbid.  I wouldn’t, anyway, it being that I’m not a government officer and I’ve realized I was wrong about something once or twice before, particularly about things that don’t pertain directly to me.

But when government legislators and agencies act like you’re the customer, just because you’re being forced to pay and receiving something in return, remember you’re not.  If you have no choice, you’re not the customer.  You’re the chattel. – SAH*

Who Is The Customer? – Kate Paulk


Facebook is a dangerous place. It inspires Kate-rants when truly impressive levels of stupid are on display, which is something like 200% of the time, and I happen to run across them – which happens rather less frequently or I’d burn my keyboards out much faster than is safe for me or them.


The latest example came from a sub-thread in a discussion inspired by one of those memes that’s basically saying teachers are whiners. The sub-thread meandered into the question of who is the customer of the education system, into which someone posted the definition of customer as listed by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Customer):



In sales, commerce and economics, a customer (sometimes known as a client, buyer, or purchaser) is the recipient of a good, service, product or an idea – obtained from a seller, vendor, or supplier via a financial transaction or exchange for money or some other valuable consideration.



When challenged, the person argued in circles for a while before falling back to a claim of being “buried in semantics” and “worn out on the topic” (they later apologized for the whole sub-thread, which leads me to suspect that in this case someone wasn’t thinking too clearly when they posted. It happens to the best of us. But the Wikipedia definition is still dreadful).


Starting with the Merriam-Webster definition of customer, you get “one who purchases a commodity or service”. Which covers everything needed – one who purchases implies both the exchange of currency (as opposed to barter which in its purest form is a two-way trade relationship in which both parties are suppliers and both are customers) and the ability to choose both whether to purchase and what to purchase. Since the commodity or service isn’t being pulled out of thin air, that implies that there is a supplier who receives the money the customer users to make the purchase.


The Wikipedia definition starts to fall apart before it gets halfway through: first, the customer does not have to receive whatever is purchased. When you buy a gift, you don’t receive the gift: it goes to whoever you’re giving it to. That gift might be physically in your hands in transit, but more often than not these days, you will never see it – but you are still the customer. For that matter, you could argue over whether insurance involves receiving something, since the actual purchase in this case is a promise of reimbursement – which need not be to the customer – if some bad thing happens, not the reimbursement itself.


That’s not the worst part of the definition, though. Consider “obtained from a seller, vendor, or supplier via a financial transaction or exchange for money or some other valuable consideration.” Leaving aside the questionable grammar of this part of the sentence, it’s constructed in a way that makes a thief or mugger the customer of their victim. After all, they obtain goods or services from a supplier. A valuable consideration (the supplier’s life not being threatened) is exchanged. In the same way, being blackmailed into bending over for the nice landlord  and having your rent excused after is in fact purchasing another month’s rental.


Okay, you could say these are barter exchanges, but neither are actually legal, and neither involves the free choice of both parties, something that’s implied to be present in the simpler definition.


This is why semantics do actually matter (also, incidentally, why it’s a good thing to think twice and post once or not at all. Getting hot on the enter key can lead to posting things that don’t mean what you think they mean). It’s a little like the semantics of “Let’s eat Grandma!” and “Let’s eat, Grandma!” – what’s in the gaps can mean as much or more than what’s actually present.


As to who is the customer in any situation – it’s whoever or whatever is paying for the thing. In the case of public schools, the customer is whichever entity funds the school. If you’re not paying tuition fees, you aren’t the customer. If you’re paying at one remove, the intermediary is the customer, not you. You are the intermediary’s customer – if you have a choice not to pay. If you don’t have a choice, you’re not a customer, you’re part of the production process.

77 thoughts on “Who Is The Customer? – Kate Paulk

    1. Not if he was forced to buy the insurance and had no choice of its features.
      Or possibly actually even if he bought it freely. My insurance pays for things and doesn’t make for things that make no sense medically, but suit the insurance. (We’ll talk about Dan’s knees, sometime.)

    2. Pretty much. That’s one of the fundamental problems with the American health care system, the disconnect between consumers and customers.

      1. I’ve been saying that if medical insurance companies were structured like USAA (military property and other insurance), where the customers are the shareholders, and in a non-destructive year* get a monetary refund, there would be a much better return on services than our current system.

        *I think it was Hurricane Andrew that drained their coffers and had them scramble to get new rules in place as to how much of an emergency fund they could maintain.

        1. Yes, it was. And after Ike (IIRC) they sent out a little notice that they would drop coverage for .005 percent of household policies because of the high risk.

          1. There’s only a few people who rebuild in hurricane strike zones (I’m talking the beachfront places, here) that I can respect, and they are the ones who do things like building a concrete dome with parking underneath so that the living spaces are on the second floor, and do everything else they can to make a house actually survive a hurricane. Then it comes, they lock up and leave with the warning, and their house is fine when they come back.

        1. We’re the consumer, and therein lies the problem. Markets really don’t work when there’s a disconnect between the consumer and the customer.

        2. In their negotiations with hospitals, health insurers have a concept called “Directed Volume” – basically people on the hoof, which they deliver as a valuable consideration to the hospital in return for rates discounted from the hospital’s billed charges.

          So yes, you are the insurance company’s commodity in their relationship with the hospital, especially for scheduled stuff like outpatient surgery, which have a much higher margin for the hospital than unschedulable care such as any treatment resulting from visits to the Emergency Department.

    3. One of Thomas Szasz’s early books argued that point at some length, along with the related point that in a socialized system like the USSR, the customer is the state. It’s really not very different from understanding that when I take my cat to the vet, the cat is not the customer.

      It seems to me that the big step that led to the destruction of American medicine was not Medicare or Medicaid, but employee health benefits in the form of prepaid group care, and more specifically the definition of such benefits as not being compensation and thus not subject to income tax or Social Security. Medicare was basically an attempt to create the same arrangement for retired people who had spent their working lives having all their health care covered by insurance paid for by their employers, as opposed to paying for their own hospitalization insurance to cover things that cost more than their savings could cover (or their borrowings from family and friends, or the available charity).

      1. I’ve made the observation before that the distortion of the health market as we see it today — that of employers providing insurance, so that if you’re working on your own, you’re on your own for insurance, too — was a result of Government trying to cap what employers could employ employees.

        This means that not only are patients divorced from paying their medical expenses directly (ah, just bill it to insurance!) but patients are divorced from paying for their insurance (hey, I get to choose between three plans!).

        Is it any wonder, then, that when insurance doesn’t cover something that ought to be covered, a patient will say “There ought to be a law!” rather than “I’m going to switch insurance companies!”? And thus government interference in health care increases, bit by bit, even though Government no longer caps employee salaries…

        1. Yup. And it’s fun to watch left-leaning arguments collapse when you ask them “Why should anyone but you and your doctor have a say in what treatment is best for you?”

          It shorts brains out almost as fast as “Why do you assume the government should be deciding who can marry whom?”

          1. I’m particularly bemused that the feminists who were staunch believers that abortion was a private decision between a woman and her doctor are not insisting that abortion is a private decision between a woman, her doctor, her insurance company, the government agencies that regulate what insurance covers, and Congress.

    4. Yes, exactly. The insurance company is the doctor’s customer. The doctor/hospital will look after the insurance company *first*.

      If you get health coverage through your employer, your employer is the insurance company’s customer. Especially if it’s mandated.

  1. And then there’s the inverse: unless you’re paying cash, you aren’t your doctor’s customer.

    Your insurance company is their customer, not you. You’re just an annoying step between “golf” and “getting paid.”

    1. Judging from the discounts you get when paying cash from many reports, the insurance company and dealing with them at all is the annoying step.

    2. And if your employer is the one providing you insurance, it’s the employer that’s the insurance company’s customer, not you.

  2. As I put over there, the fact that government extorts money from me and then uses that extorted money to “buy” public education does not make me the customer. I might, using the other individual’s definition of customer, be a customer of government buying the “product” of “not going to jail”. But then what they go and spend that money on is on them considering how very little say I have in the matter.

    In any case the children are in no way the customer.

    1. In any case the children are in no way the customer.

      The children are not the customers, the proper descriptions of their relationship to the system of government schools for most of them are captives and victim.

      (I hate to use the second word for all the garbage that has been attached to it but I am in no mood to let the politically correct and social justice warrior idiots have their way with perfectly good words in my vocabulary.)

      1. Children are customers of school systems under the same basic guidelines as inmates are customers of asylums or prisons.

        1. At best, they are the product. And the customer does not care that the product is emerging damaged and effectively useless.

          1. Perhaps I’ve been reading the NY papers too much, but I’ve been coming to the conclusion that the primary customer of school systems are the Teachers’ Unions and the main product is union dues. Children, students are merely a byproduct, a form of industrial waste of the main processes.

  3. About 15 years ago my old agency wanted to call the people it regulated its customers. (This was part of some attempt to become more corporate and efficient. We were supposed to adopt the lingo.) I tried very hard to suggest not using that term directly with the folks we regulated. My most persuasive argument was, “Do you feel like the IRS’s customer?”

    1. The IRS’s customer, eh? More like the IRS’s herd or flock, in analogy to dairy cattle or laying hens.

      1. Elric: “I see .. .billions of voices calling your name.”

        Londo: “My followers?”

        Elric: “Your victims.”

  4. One thing I agree completely with my former Dissertation Advisor about. He informed undergraduates who complained “I paid tuition so you have to give me a good grade,” that they had paid for the opportunity to study and learn. What they did or did not do with that opportunity was up to them. And administrators who try to ensure that Precious Prince/ss only gets good grades can go jump in a lake. (D.A. has hard-core tenure. Can you tell?)

    The parents at “my” school pay tuition. If their offspring choose to ignore deadlines and decide not to do work, they freely chose. And the faculty here will freely give students the grades they earn. And 99% of the time, the parent backs us up.

    1. And I can also see how the trend of going from tenured to adjunct professors may very well contribute to grade inflation.

      That, in addition to considering “Grievance Studies” (among other subjects) to be real degrees.

      1. As well as student evaluations having anything to do with whether said adjunct keeps the position.

    2. Reminds me of my old Department Head. “You don’t have to show up to class. You don’t have to study. You don’t have to take the tests (all two of them). *I* don’t have to give you a passing grade. Your studies here are entirely your own responsibility.” He taught the 101 level for giggles, I think- it did cut down on the fundamentally unserious. Made life much easier for those of us picking up the slack.

  5. Aren’t the real customers of public education the special interests getting access to children for sexual purposes? That was a condition of funding education, accepted by all the education bureaucrats.

      1. I’ve not heard that any of the schools rejected federal funds, or shut down rather than comply with the bathroom directive. I’ve not heard that any state shut down funding for public schools rather than be complicit in same.

        Obviously we must conclude that this is de facto prostitution and everyone employed by any program that took federal education monies should be registered as a sex offender, and prevented from having access to children.

  6. I confused the hell out of my liberal family when I pointed out (pre-Obamacare) that the customers of health insurance companies were employers rather than individuals.

    1. Technically, what “we” receive from employer contracted health insurance companies is veterinary care: we get as much care as the person paying for it is willing to buy.

    1. Fair enough. I see the payer as “the one who provides the funding and directs the spending”. When you wave the company credit card for an approved purchase, you aren’t the payer, the company is. You’re acting as a proxy for them.

      1. This is pointed up by the legal disputes over who receives “bonus points” (e.g., airline miles), who pays the taxes for those incidental incomes, and why it is considered misappropriation for purchasers to receive kickbacks.

  7. I’m probably going to flub this badly but here goes:

    A financial transaction implies that the parties involved have come to a mutually agreed upon course of action. If either party is entering into the arrangement are not consenting, it isn’t a financial transaction.

    The mutual consent part is what makes me crazy about the whole Minimum Wage. If the prospective employee doesn’t believe they are going to be paid enough for their time, they won’t take the job. No one is forcing people to take jobs for less than what they think they’re worth.

    1. “No one is forcing people to take jobs for less than what they think they’re worth.”

      That’s true…but only if there’s no minimum wage. If your employment yet isn’t worth minimum wage, but you need experience to prove to future employers that you really are worth at least minimum wage, there are only two options for you: unemployment, or volunteer work. Well, make that three: you can get an education, which is negative employment unless you can get a scholarship.

      If you’re working as a volunteer, you’re literally getting paid for less than what you know you’re worth!

      And the funny thing is, if you decide to go into business for yourself, you don’t get benefits from your customers. They aren’t going to pay you a minimum wage, nor will they let you take time off for three months for paid family leave. (They *may* let you take unpaid leave, if they really like you as a supplier of whatever it is you’re supplying….and commitments to other suppliers don’t get too entangling…)

      It’s kindof funny: if a typical employer refuses to employ someone because of race, or gender, or any number of things, the Federal Government can come down heavily on them…yet customers literally employ the shopkeepers to provide them for goods, and yet *they* are free to refuse to employ, er, I mean, boycott, shopkeepers they don’t like for any reason. (This is actually why I’m against the Civil Rights Act: you shouldn’t force anyone to associate with people they don’t like, regardless of why the dislike is there. It’s just more plausible to enforce when you have an employer/employee relationship, than it is when you have a customer/supplier relationship…)

    2. Yes, indeed. Mutual consent is crucial to the whole complicated setup working and continuing to work.

      Without it, you have one of the milder forms of slavery: indenture perhaps, or press-ganging, or forced requisition, or something of that ilk.

  8. This kind of argument goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly the sophists. There’s a story about one philosopher who defined “man” as “a featherless biped,” whereupon a rival went over to a stall, purchased a plucked chicken, and held it out to the first philosopher, saying, “Here is your man!” On one hand you have people to whom all that logic chopping is unendurably tedious; on the other, we owe those ancient Greeks the whole concept of critical thinking, which is kind of like the immune system of the intellect (though some of philosophy looks like an intellectual autoimmune disorder!).

  9. The customer is the one paying the money. In the case of public schools, the customer is THE SCHOOL BOARD. They pay the money. The children are a -cost- to the system.

    Likewise with single payer medicare, the government pays the money. Patients are a cost to the system.

    In both cases, -outcomes- are completely unimportant.

    That’s why the answer to everything in a public system is rationing. Maximize budget, minimize cost. Monetize, modularize, unitize, and dole out the little units as grudgingly as possible. Once the recipient has gotten their assigned quota of units, the system is done with them.

    This is how you get high school graduates who can’t read a newspaper.

  10. Sarah, perhaps “Ward” would be a better designation than chattel in describing our relationship with the state. Belloc’s The Servile State may be written in an unfashionable style, but it describes the process nicely.

    “Career” government civil servants have made many of us wards rather that free citizens, and have managed to make elections superfluous.

  11. This has probably been mentioned before, but doesn’t that mean that the Big 5 are (traditionally published) authors’ customers? That perspective explains a lot.

  12. This warping of the relationship between customer and provider/seller extends beyond medicine and politics.

    In the retail world, how many people (aside from me) stopped shopping at Target? How many people looked at a business that put non-business related topics (i.e., politics, PC) front and center and held onto our wallets? Just yesterday I got an email about a new NIke product, looked at the photo and thought, “that’s another reason NOT to buy Nike products.”

    I do understand that there’s a fine line between appealing to new (potential) customers without alienating your existing base, but currently businesses seem to pick the polar opposite every single time (now that’s talent!). Guess they’re so successful they don’t need their existing customer base.

    1. Target: expensive, eye-bleeding kilowatt pinlights in half-darkness, screechy “music” that raises hackles on the back of my neck.

      When they put their “we don’t want your kind here” sign on the door a few years ago, that was the last chance of them getting any of my money.

      1. expensive, eye-bleeding kilowatt pinlights in half-darkness,

        …I kind of want to see a Target in your area now just because this sounds like a fascinating if alarming stylistic choice. The ones here have fairly normal store lighting.

        1. I don’t know who runs Spice House, but they’re my new go-to for lemon peel and maharajah curry. So far they haven’t spammed me with leftist propaganda. I don’t care what their CEO thinks or believes as long as they don’t insist on making it my business.

    2. Well, my immediate and extended family stopped shopping at Target. And haven’t bought any Levis since they targeted the Boy Scouts.

      1. I wasn’t very happy with BSA when national leadership decided that letting homosexuals in was a good thing. BSA is, or was, supposed to be a celibate organization. No hanky panky of any kind. Allowing openly gay members just opened the tent flaps for all kinds of problems, not the least of which was making their child protection program a complete farce.

        1. Eh, I’ve known quite a few gay Scouts in my time, and most of them were firmly in the “I believe in the Scout Oath and Motto” types, which means that the idea of doing anything with a fellow Scout was somewhat distasteful if it ever even crossed their minds. (I worked at a BSA summer camp, so yes, I know a LOT of Scouts.)

          Also note that gay does not equal “predator.” I know of a case where an assistant scoutmaster brought in a friend, who happened to be a member of that acronym you don’t name (because it brings vermin), and this was discovered, thankfully, when they were still doing the “grooming” stage. The fallout from that was interesting, because it’s why one brother doesn’t have his Eagle and why my dad suddenly became a Scoutmaster.

    3. My wife alternates her ‘boycott’ between Target and Walmart, depending on which one pissed her off last. These seem to last about a month or two. I’ll go to which ever I happen to be closest to at the time I need a particular item that they have. My favorite place to shop though is Mills Fleet Farm.

    1. I’m pretty quiet on my public wall. Mostly cat pics or tales of the latest insanity committed by cat.

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