In the movie Sabrina, the character David Larrabee (William Holden) confronts his brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) about his obsession with running their family business. He accuses Linus of caring only about money. To which the elder brother responds:
Linus: Making money isn’t the main point of business. Money is a by-product.
David: What’s the main objective? Power?
Linus: Ah! That’s become a dirty word.
David: What’s the urge? You’re going into plastics. What will that prove?
Linus: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you’re in business. It’s coincidental that people who’ve never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?
Little else in the cinema or art of the 20th century expressed the doe-eyed passion for enterprise and trade that was so characteristic of the first generations of liberalism. But liberalism’s love affair with commerce over the three centuries of its history has been tumultuous, with high peaks in the era of doux commerce, and low valleys in the era of The New Industrial State. Since the 19th century at the latest, the only constant in economic relations has been radical transformation; what looked like a space for radical egalitarianism in the 18th century looked less so to those who lived during the rise of the modern corporation. And yet the responses to this rise have too often taken the dominance of large corporations for granted; John Kenneth Galbraith for example failed to take into account the ability of small startups to introduce innovation and competitive pressures into industries dominated by large companies. Meanwhile, the libertarian offshoot from the liberal tradition has too often been uncompromising and categorical in its defense of absolute property rights.
In this dark chapter in the history of liberalism, as we seek its revitalization, it is time to return once more to the question of commerce. The presumption of liberty, which is central to liberalism of any sort, guarantees that commerce will always have some place in a liberal political order. But the range of possible laws which more or less respect this presumption, while also taking other considerations into account, is quite vast. Whole books have been written on just the presumption of liberty or the rule of law, or the implications of balancing the two political ideals. They will not be the focus on this piece.
Instead I will discuss the moral ideal of commerce, as a central part of a good and flourishing life. This ideal does not rely on whitewashing or excessive cynicism; it is a standard we can reasonably strive for but frequently fall short of. The ideal, implicit in American practice and attitudes towards commerce, is to provide honorably what can be used wisely.
Ditching producers and consumers
Before moving on to the ideal I wish to defend, let’s get rid of the vocabulary of producers and consumers. If they were ever relevant—do I really “consume” a car?—they certainly are much less so today, as more people work in service industries rather than physical production. Instead, let’s talking about providing for use. More importantly, let’s stop thinking of these as two separate things apart from one another, and try harder to talk about them like the unity they actually form.
In their home lives, parents may buy books, and educational video games, and cable TV with cartoons, all for their children. If they’re the planning sort, they buy food for the week. If they’re not, they might find themselves ordering pizza one night. If they want some time away from the kids, they probably need a babysitter, and odds are they will go out to a restaurant, or a movie.
Every item or service that they and their children use—books to read, games to play, TV to watch, food to eat, a babysitter to make sure their children are safe and taken care of, somewhere to spend time together away from typical routines—must be provided, and the work of provision is primarily done in advance.
A large number of people are involved in providing a children’s book; we may think of the author, of course, and the people who work at the publisher, but complex supply chains bring countless hands into the process. All of these people, in turn, contribute to providing books like the ones our parents bought, so that they, too, may be able to buy books or games for their own children, or for themselves.
So, too, is the provision of a service such as babysitting largely carried out prior to its use. Even a ‘sole proprietor’ of a babysitting outfit must organize his life to clear out time, arrange for travel and handle other logistics, communicate and coordinate with potential customers, and so forth. And the travel and communication services essential to the babysitter’s work, which are delivered through vehicles, devices, networks, etc., come about through the same sort of complex supply chains that lie behind any ‘tangible’ good.
Meanwhile, the parents in our story must have helped to provide some thing or service in order to have been able to buy the items mentioned above in the first place!
In this way, providing and use are processes which form a unity.
Today, a huge majority of what we use is provided through commerce. But not all of it, not by a long shot. Infrastructure is largely provided through tax-financed institutions, for example. Politically, countries like America long ago moved towards providing the great bulk of education that way, as well.
For most of human history, nearly everyone had to spend nearly every hour of the day working so that they could provide for their most basic needs. The shift from subsistence farming to providing food for everyone through commerce has been both a tremendous material gain, and a liberation from constant toil.
In the 20th century, there were many attempts to provide everything through government administration. They went quite badly, in relative terms at the very least. As I said above, this does not discredit the provision of anything through government administration. But it has certainly made it clear that there are limitations we would do well to heed.
In a country like America, providing through government largely takes the form of government participation in commerce. Tax funds are the basis of the purchasing, and government officials oversee and make key decisions, but the materials must be bought from companies, and the labor is often done by contractors. And government officials go home and pay their babysitter, buy their children’s books and games, just like everyone else—in our country, public providing forms a unity with private use, as well.
Providing honorably what can be wisely used
Working for Google rather than the Red Cross is not something you should be embarrassed about. Nor should you be embarrassed for working at McDonald’s, as opposed, say, to being a police officer. Food and technology play an important role in a good life, alongside those who serve and protect, or those who provide blood transfusions. Whether through commerce or some other means, we do our best to support a good life for ourselves and our loved ones by contributing to the good life of other people.
A healthy commerce is made up of the interlocking efforts to provide honorably and use wisely. Use wisely, because it takes wisdom to integrate something into a good life. Television can waste time and turn you into a couch potato, or it can delight you and enrich your life. McDonald’s can foster unhealthy overeating, or it can be one way among many to cut expenses when money is tight or expedite dinner in a time crunch. Video games can be isolating, or they can foster a community of gamers and be appreciated for their often quite sophisticated artistry and storytelling. Not everything can be turned into an ingredient of a good life, but with enough wisdom, the set is quite large.
What can be used wisely ought to be provided honorably, because it takes honor to avoid the many temptations to engage in shameful opportunism. It is wishful thinking to believe that being good is invariably good for business. It can be good for business, or at any rate being good doesn’t have to put you out of business. Nevertheless, opportunities abound to cut corners, act out of spite to a coworker or subordinate, or throw good people under the bus. It is a real challenge to be both good and successful—but a challenge that we must not shrink from.
Those of us who support ourselves in the working world know it is a mix of good and bad, honor and vice. Often, it is a mix within the very same people. Henry Ford provided cars that were affordable enough for the masses and paid his workers wages that were above the market rate. However, he made these wages contingent on clean homes, healthy diets, abstaining from drinking, and a number of other stipulations, which he enforced by sending inspectors to their homes without warning. Steve Jobs pushed an artistic and technological vision which delighted and empowered consumers for decades, but he was notoriously emotionally abusive to his employees. We can examine these cases critically because we know what ideals are being ignored or fallen short of. The cynical rhetoric of our times subverts the hope for moral criticism as a productive enterprise.
Some defenses of commerce avoid explicit ideals, opting instead to stress how great our uncertainty is. Friedrich Hayek and sympathetic thinkers emphasize how our ideals themselves often emerge from processes that are much larger than we are. Commerce is just such a process, so we ought not to be overhasty in judging what comes out of it. This confronts us with the question: Can we judge innovations by typical moral criteria? Is there anything which we are intrinsically unable to provide honorably or use wisely?
And the answer seems to me to obviously be yes. There is no honorable way to provide child pornography, or any way to make use of it that is anything short of despicable. Using heroin is nothing but a method for ruining your life, and providing such a thing in full knowledge of what it does is indefensible. Any defense of commerce which pretends such things are not clear as day is unlikely to sway anyone with a conscience.
Cigarettes are more debatable. Phillip Morris has a reputation for treating its employees very well and being very generous. Does that make them an honorable provider, when their bottom line depends entirely on something so carcinogenic? It would certainly be worse if they were selling their particular product and did so through a hostile work environment. But it’s not clear to me that addressing the latter is enough, no matter how close to an ideal workplace they might succeed in creating. This is a question on which reasonable people can disagree.
Pornography is similarly controversial, and we need not even look to religious moralists to see it. One school of feminism holds that it can be a source of empowerment and liberation for women, under the right circumstances. Another holds that it is pure domination and exploitation. The former clearly implies that it can be provided honorably. And if the users are just indulging in a fantasy, what’s the harm?
But the anti-porn feminists argue that the rhetoric of pornography hurts women outside of those directly participating in the act. Moreover, even if we can imagine a liberating or empowering sex-positive world, in practice it never works out that way. As Robin Morgan put it, “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” I confess I find this view more persuasive, with regard to this industry. I do not think human relations are so plastic that we can be so cavalier and transactional about sex without consequences. And I believe that sex industries create an image of human relations which is deformed, and which has no place in a good life.
In a liberal democracy, freedom of choice among consenting adults is one of our most prized political ideals. But that does not mean that every conceivable choice that people are within their rights to make will be a good one. There are many political, pragmatic, or legal reasons why we might consider something a bad choice but oppose outlawing it. Many who believe that most illegal drugs are bad still favor legalization, because the drug war has had consequences that are worse. But to draw such distinctions, we must have a clear view of our ideals.
This is my proposed sketch of a liberal characterization of commerce appropriate for today: a sphere in which we strive to provide honorably and use wisely, together. Honorable provision and wise use are enabled by the presumption of liberty, within the confines of a body of law. It is only a sketch, and this isn’t the place to make these concepts more concrete or determinate; that happens on a daily basis in public discussion, in democratically elected legislatures, and in open court. From the outline of the basic concepts above, I hope it is clear that a liberal defense of commerce can be a critical one, and rest on a thick moral groundwork rather than assuming the neutrality of market forces.