It has been coming to my attention, more and more over the past few years, that there is a disconnect in both typical liberals and typical economic neo-conservatives in how they approach a certain complex of questions in market theory.
One of the major elements of success in our market system is the standardization of units. The first of these is the standard unit of money: whether you are using the dollar or the Euro, within some 1/4 of the world that unit is so broadly accepted, on equal basis in every instance, that we simply FORGET to notice: almost everyone accepts my money. It wasn’t always so. When money was coins - gold, silver, iron or copper - there were unusual sizes, diluted issues, shaved pieces, authenticity worries, coins so worn it was impossible to identify the specific denomination / source. And even when the specific piece of money was finally proven out as authentic, undiluted, etc, sometimes the seller might have to worry if he could later turn around and use it with equal effect (say, if he was buying goods from across the border).
The second area of standardization is that of units of goods. With mass manufacturing, each and every copy of a book, of a pencil, of a toy or a car part, is enough like every other copy that the buyer need only ask of his friends, neighbors, or fellow amazon-buyers what their experience with other instances of the same thing were like: variation between the individual instances is usually low enough not to matter much. The buyer need not care much whether he gets item # 2,368 or #9,339. In some things, like corporate stocks, the item is more of a notional reality anyway, and there is NO real difference between item #2,368 and #9,339. Just like the fact that there is no practical difference between this quarter and that one, and not one merchant in a million will even stop to look at the quarter with care.
The third area of standardization comes in on the OTHER side of the transaction: from the standpoint of the seller, each and every buyer is enough like any other buyer that he simply need not pay attention to the particulars: whether the buyer is tall or short, funny or somber, well-heeled or poor. As long as the buyer is willing to part with the stated amount of money, it simply DOESN’T MATTER who he is. To be a “buyer” means to be a person willing to buy at the stated price, and that’s all the seller cares about or is allowed to care about.
Now, there are certainly areas around the fringes of the markets where these are not as overwhelmingly true: trade between countries with different units of money (especially small countries with difficult-to-trade currencies), trade in antiquities and museum pieces, trade in race horses or pedigreed dogs, etc. In these, we may tend to think that the “market” is only imperfectly developed, that it falls away from a “perfect” market just to the extent that it fails to be so standarizable that we can ignore the particulars of copies or instances.
Yet this reveals assumptions that bear looking at. Is it truly an ideal thing that “the market” reduce the actors, the seller and the buyer, to mere notional and impersonal roles whose entire description is fulfilled by saying “seller” and “buyer”. Is it truly an *excellence* of that human meeting place called “the market” that we, with its help and urging, embark on abstracting from a transaction the individualities and personalities involved, that we refuse to even acknowledge the differences between A and B if both are buyers, the way in algebra we abstract out from the specifics of whether 8L refers to 8 ladders or 8 units of length in manipulating the equation? Is it a perfection of commercial transactions that they take place without even a notional place for discussing the particulars that tell us _why_ the actors are entering that transaction? Is that natural and good? Or is it, maybe, only natural and good within limits. Do we need to understand that assumption as demanding qualifiers?
Not all markets and not all societies so idealize a pristine, impersonal “the market” to the same extent that we do. In some places, not only is price negotiating the norm, it is considered rude and unsocial to refuse such interactions. Bargaining between buyer and seller is done with a more or less explicit advertence to the particulars of the person: whether you are buying that scarf for your wife or your mistress may matter; whether you are selling your first melon of the day or your last matters. Some people will refuse to sell an item of their craftsmanship if they are convinced the buyer will not use it honorably and with care. Want to buy an expensive sword from me? Prove to me that you can handle a sword, first, so you don’t dishonor my craft by your ignorance.
This last grates on American ears. If I want to buy an expensive guitar in order to violently bust it on stage, we tend to think the seller has no room to argue: he has guitars for sale, I am willing to buy at the price he offers, and that’s the end of it. For him to refuse to sell to _me_ is to deny my civil rights, because he has offered guitars “to the public” at large. Selling guitars is thus assumed to be an IMPERSONAL act toward the public, it is saying “I will sell at a stated price to any and all comers.” The condition “to any and all comers” means that he simply doesn’t look to any particulars of the possible buyers other than the FACT of being willing to buy at this price. The seller’s natural right to limit his (theoretical) capacity to make a different contractual relationship for different buyers is often constrained by law: an attempt to limit his offers to sell only on certain conditions is denied. To even BE a “seller” is assumed to mean “prepared to sell to any and all comers without distinction” and legally enforced that way.
You can begin see the difference such an assumption makes compared to a society that doesn’t even contemplate price tags. There, if you want to buy an item, from a knife to a bicycle to an auto, you have to talk to the seller first. Only after you establish a modicum of a relationship (even if only temporary) can you talk price, and it is inherent to the process that the price the seller names, and the price you name, work out BASED on that personal relationship. There is no presumption that “He is a seller at X price” because he makes a decision of whether to BE a seller based on many factors other than X price. And thus his first named price differs for different buyers, and his finally accepted price differs also for different buyers because his relationship changes from buyer to buyer. There is no such thing as the pre-set offered “price” of the object, there is only “the finally arrived at price he came to with A”, and separately “the finally arrived at price he came to with B…” etc.
Now, in America such social (and legal) constraints as our own with pre-stated prices available to all comers is not imposed uniformly and universally. Artists are, still, able to pick and choose their clientele, at least to SOME extent, and could modify their agreed selling prices according to their relationships to buyers. A portrait painter can still decline to enter into a contract to paint. An interior decorator probably can decline to decorate a person’s house merely because she “doesn’t like the colors he chose”. But even artists are saddled with constraints. A photographer renting space from Wal-mart probably cannot legally refuse to take photos of any and all comers, (according to current trends in interpreting law), at least if the subject is not doing something illegal (say, public nudity).
The gradual wall-building of our society to enforce that pristine, impersonal marketplace gets more complete by the year. By the early 1900’s, unions forced plant owners to pay everyone standardized rates. This has had some good effects, but some bad ones too: an owner cannot easily pay a man more merely because he has more kids. House sales now are “strictly commercial” acts and you may not discriminate on the basis of the particularities of person. (Yes, I know that the legal language is different, more limited: only religion, race, sex, etc, are protected from discrimination, but the net effect is the same: in theory I could refuse to sell a house to a buyer because I don’t like his hair style or his smell, but in practice – by legal imposition leading the way for now social conditioning – in practical terms I cannot.) My doctor has pointed out one of the results of Obamacare: he can no longer adjust his pricing to the capacity of the sick person to pay. He is constrained to charge the same price to everyone, thus pricing some poor people out of health care they would otherwise get.
Think, though, of what this means in the larger picture, about what such assumptions mean. I mean philosophically and socially. If “to sell” means “to act without regard to the individual personhood of the buyer”, then the act of selling is no longer the establishment of a person to person relationship, no matter how fleeting. This has implications for the long term, for the larger picture: the seller no longer has a care for the buyer because he does not think of the buyer as a person, only a “unit of buying.” The seller has no interest in the longevity of the product in the buyer’s hands, unless (a) the buyer bad-mouth’s the seller, or (b) the buyer comes back with a legally enforceable claim for repair or replacement, i.e. directly commercial consequences. The seller cannot even be bothered to be GLAD for the buyer’s enjoyment of the product. Indeed, the seller ideally would NOT want the buyer to enjoy the product, so that the buyer remains “in the market” for still more goods. Thus the seller’s attitudes contribute to rank commercialization that expects and applauds consumerism.
Likewise, the buyer has no interest in the personhood of the seller. Thus he does not, and cannot, reasonably take thought for whether the seller can support his family on the profit margin implied at a certain price (unless that affects his future market). The buyer will not reflect on or act on the issue of whether the seller cheated or gouged in order to acquire the good, (as long as he obtains clear title). Thus the buyer’s attitudes contribute to i>rank commercialization that expects and applauds cheapened goods and services at all (non-monetary) costs, including specifically human costs.
And both of these are, in the long term, attitudes such as to undermine the free market. A market, in order to be a good, successful market, must have long-term stability. (Just one reason is that a person cannot, without a stable market, attempt to price a good without any way of supposing what his marginal value for X that he might give up today might be worth to him tomorrow. Longevity is itself a required aspect of the marketplace.) But attitudes that lead to practices of dissembling, cheating, gouging, petty thieving (shop-lifting), shady warrantees that cannot be used / enforced, products that are engineered to break the day after the warrantee period ends, are all practices that will undermine the stable marketplace. The pretense that the “buyer” or “seller” is just an impersonal force, in the long run will undermine a good marketplace. It will undermine the factors that make a marketplace more successful as a marketplace.
Hence the marketplace, considered solely as a meetingplace of “market forces”, is an unstable and incomplete idea. The market is a part of human good, and must be understood as part in order to be understood really as a good. It requires being completed by things outside of itself. It requires additional input besides a sheer “buyer”, “seller”, and “item potentially desired.”
Much more pointedly, a refusal to see the other party to a sale as a *person* means the removal of MORALITY from the transactions. It means that one can no longer even bring the vocabulary of morality to the marketplace: people will look at you with blank stares if you ask “sure it’s legal, but is that a JUST way to sell?” Abstracting from the marketplace the personhood of the actors means draining the marketplace of the basis on which to even WANT to proceed with justice or honesty, (much less mercy).
If you are a buyer or a seller, if you buy from the grocery or work at the grocery, your first proximate motivation in each transaction should be to respect the confluence of needs and desires that unites the human family here: he has a need, I have a way of meeting that need; likewise I have a need, and he has a way of meeting that need; and by operating together we will both be better off than before. The desire thus to DO GOOD for the other person, which is a form of love, should be present at all times. The act of “operating together”, i.e. the sale transaction, is the working out in detail of the GENERAL love of persons, made particular in the here and now by mutual assent to an exchange that, so far as the information available (to both parties, not just one) implies that each one really is benefitting by making the exchange. A transaction in which one party is convinced he has “gotten much the better of the other ha ha ha” is, by definition, a deformity of human interaction.
This does not imply an absolute impossibility of standardized marketing prices, such as in a supermarket where the prices are on the label, pre-set and largely non-negotiable. Not absolutely – as long as other aspects of society step in and generate the necessary add-ons that keep personhood present to the market. It does mean that official attempts to use law to depersonalize market transactions, without adding some other mechanism of personal input will tend to degenerate the market as a human institution. We can see the effects of this tendency everywhere we look: store clerks who treat customers as cattle, and customers who treat store clerks as auditory robots to be yelled into submission. Financiers who consider credit card users as sheep to be fleeced. Corporate executives who view laborers as units to get the most out of for the least financial price, all other costs irrelevant. Consumers out to get the cheapest price even if due to illegal immigrants. Big chain stores that treat suppliers as entities to be crushed into submission.
The complete depersonalization of the market place (without any ameliorating structures) is both damaging to the true free market and damaging to society as a whole. And it is not what the conservative respect for the free market demands as a model of the ideal. Truly free markets implies agents free to respect the real differences of different persons – which implies the freedom of sellers not to sell to everyone or not to sell to some, as well as the freedom of buyers not to buy from sellers whose selling practices they find morally revolting. Nor can it be free if the freedom is on one side and not the other.
One of the irreducible aspects of a truly free market place is the possibility of agents choosing badly. That includes not just choosing to enter into transactions that ultimately do NOT exchange equal for equal (because they misjudge the value of one side or the other), but also actors choosing to cheat the other out of value. If the market place is constrained so as to attempt to make the latter impossible, it ceases to be a free market place. Like the world in which God placed us, the market is a field of opportunity to freely choose well or choose ill: making it impossible to choose ill by rules would make it no longer possible to freely choose the good.