Commentary

Starbucks and ‘Laissez Faire’

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 7, 2008.

Laissez-faire. It’s a policy that made Starbucks vastly successful. But don’t try to put that phrase on a customized Starbucks Card.

The cards are supposed be personalized to reflect customers’ tastes and uniqueness. They are available in a range of colors, often given as gifts and used by regular customers who prefer to prepay for their java.

But when my friend Roger Ream, president of the Fund for American Studies, received a Starbucks gift card for Christmas, he found there was a limit to how personalized a card could be. His card required him to customize it on the company’s Web site. So he went to the site and requested that the phrase “Laissez Faire” be printed on his card. A few days later he was informed that the company couldn’t issue such a card because the wording violated company policy.

Starbucks’s company policy is this: “We review each Card before printing it to make sure it meets our personalization policy. We accept most personalization requests, but we can’t honor every one. Some requests may contain trademarks that we don’t have the right to use. Others may contain material that we consider inappropriate (such as threatening remarks, derogatory terms, or overtly political commentary) or wouldn’t want to see on Starbucks-branded products.”

If “laissez-faire” is unacceptably political, how could the socialist slogan “people not profits” be acceptable?”

Is the phrase “laissez-faire” threatening? Only to officious bureaucracy, I would think. So, it must be that the phrase is considered to be “inappropriate” by corporate Starbucks.

But why should it be considered inappropriate? The phrase itself is an imperative. It’s French for “leave us alone,” more or less. And it comes to us through history as advice offered to Jean Baptiste Colbert, finance minister under the French King Louis XIV in the 17th century. Colbert is best known for his statement: “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” When Colbert asked a group of merchants, “What do you want from us?,” the answer was, “laisser nous faire.” “Laissez-faire” is, then, an old piece of economic advice with an impeccable French heritage.

Maybe Starbucks considers the phrase inappropriate because it’s “overtly political commentary”? Certainly my friend regards it as a firm statement of political philosophy.

And so, at my suggestion, my friend went back to the Web site and asked that his card be issued with the phrase “People Not Profits.” Bingo! Starbucks had no problem with that phrase, and the card arrived in a few days.

I wondered just what the company’s standards were. If “laissez-faire” is unacceptably political, how could the socialist slogan “people not profits” be acceptable?

My assistant and I tried to get the company to explain its policy. We started by trying to purchase a card with the phrase “Laissez Faire,” and were rejected as my friend had been. We then asked a company spokesperson why. He suggested that it might be because “laissez-faire” is a foreign phrase. That seemed possible and a reasonable precaution.

So we tried another foreign phrase – “Si Se Puede,” or “Yes we can.” It’s the United Farm Workers slogan, now adopted by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. That sailed right through. The senator’s political campaign slogan was acceptable.

We called again. Several spokespeople at Starbucks and at Arroweye, the company that actually creates personalized cards for Starbucks and other retailers, said that they couldn’t be sure, but that the phrase was probably rejected because it is political. They explained that they would not allow a customer to print “McCain for President” or “Support the Democratic Party” on a Starbucks card. And they noted that they had rejected a request for “My coffee is a weapon.” But fewer than 1% of card requests are rejected.

They had no explanation as to how “People Not Profits” and “Si Se Puede” could be regarded as less political than “Laissez Faire.”

I’m still hoping that it was all a computer glitch, and that some day my latte-drinking, non-tax-hiking friends will be able to get their very own customized Starbucks gift card with “Laissez Faire” emblazoned on it – even if it does risk a sneer from the barista.

Starbucks has prospered mightily in a free economy. For the most recent fiscal year, the company earned $672.6 million on revenue of $9.4 billion, a very healthy profit. And these days, in the wake of a California Superior Court judge’s order that the company repay $100 million in back tips that were shared by shift supervisors, Starbucks honchos just might like a little less government intervention in their affairs and a little more laissez-faire.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Freedom (Cato Institute, 2008).