Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Column on Commerce and Society

Commerce is Human

Tibor R. Machan

Sure, you say, what?s with this idea?doesn?t everyone know it already?
Well, actually in many academic institutions you will find professors of
this and that proclaiming just the opposite. They claim commerce is a
dehumanizing institution. It makes people treat one another as objects or,
at most, as means to various ends, not as full persons.

The doctrine is called ?commodification??making people into commodities,
things for nothing other than to be purchased. The charge is that in a
fully capitalist, free market society, the system would encourage everyone
to treat all others as a mere useful product, like one?s chair or
automotive tires. For this reason, the argument goes?and it had got its
biggest boost from Karl Marx, in the 19th Century when he took capitalism
to task very influentially for doing all kinds of nasty things to
people?the free market, with its capitalist economic system, is not really
good for human beings at all.

At first sight this may sound like a credible point to make against
capitalism. When you go to the grocery store, for example, you tend to
treat the cashier or the manager as no more than means to your ends of
walking out of the place with what you need at home. You don?t much
socialize with these people, not at least initially. They are just
functionaries to you. If they were machines and could do what you need
from them, that would be perfectly fine. Or so it can seem, from a
superficial examination of what happens in markets. Your broker, doctor,
auto-mechanic, shoe repairer and the rest, they aren?t your personal
friends. They are instruments used to satisfy important needs of yours but
they could easily be replaced with someone else or some tool. (Nowadays
you can even check out by using auto-scanners, with no need for a person
at all.)

Trouble is that to focus on this element of the market?that it is mostly
impersonal on a certain level?betrays a narrow vision. As if people would
leave it at that, except in the most unusual circumstances?for example,
when they are in a hurry and need to get done with shopping as fast as
possible. But normally that isn?t how it is at all.

As my friend and fellow philosophy professor Neera K. Badhwar argued in a
very well developed, complex paper on the topic, commerce is actually the
institution where much of our intimate social life gets its start. And
anyone can check this out easily enough.

Just consider that wherever you work, you have colleagues with whom you
have perfectly human relationships, good or bad or in between. In fact,
sometimes places of work become nearly homes away from home, where people
not only meet and talk and grow close (to enjoy or be annoyed by each
other), but get involved quite seriously in each other?s lives. Kids are
discussed, as are spouses. Close friendships, or at least palships,
develop frequently. Some colleagues become lovers, even marry in time.
(Contrast this with how it is like to go at the DMV!)

The myth that market transactions are impersonal is just that, a myth,
and it comes from shallow, superficial reflection on what goes on in
markets. It may be no accident that the idea is so popular in the academy,
where there is often a kind of isolation among faculty, with few becoming
close with one another, although there is enough exception to this that it
should raise doubts in the minds of those who spread the myth around about
the market.

Even down at the grocery store?or the pet shop or car dealer?customers
and vendors frequently depart from their initial reason for coming
together and start talking about sports, ethnic food, music or family
troubles. And from that now and then full blown, genuine friendships

What the critics don?t appreciate is how well people can multitask in
life, that while they do business they can also do arts, sciences,
education, family affairs and the rest on the side. Karl Marx was
wrong?the free market is by no means only a cash nexus, where everyone
thinks only of the bottom line. That?s because it would be entirely
unnatural for human beings to be that way.

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