Do You Love Commerce?
The holiday season is a marvelous opportunity for the commercial sector of life to shine. It makes possible our gift giving, decorations, parties, meals and just about everything else we associate with our traditions. For this reason, it is hard to take seriously the complaints about how the holidays have been commercialized. Without commerce, the season would barely be recognizable to us.
But do we show commerce the love it deserves? Not really. We take it all for granted, as if it were a fixed part of the universe and invulnerable to attack. This is most obvious when you see people who are downright nasty to store clerks and stores. True, it’s their right: A feature of the market is that you don’t have to trade with anyone in particular, much less be nice to them. Part of the job description of working in a retail environment is to put up with difficult customers. And there are plenty.
Yet it still troubles me when people are so dismissive of how the commercial marketplace is deferential to the masses of consumers and all their quirks. If you don’t like something, why not refrain from buying and walk away? Why hurl invective or behave in a rude way?
In a sports store the other day, I heard customers muttering that this glove is too expensive, this tennis racket is too tightly strung, this shoe is too gaudy, this exercise equipment is not all it says and that the store should carry this not that brand of ball. Most people are happy, else the place could not be in business, but other people (again, it is their right) just assume that it is their right to dislike, refuse, cut down, put down and generally dismiss any merchant with a wave of their hand.
Compare with the scene at airport security. This same class of citizens marches in lock step as it approaches security, everyone with a bit of fear, with lots of annoyance, but with a face made as emotionless as possible. Everyone permits himself or herself to be subjected to invasive searches, relents to a full-body X-ray photograph, holds their tongue — even when subjected to barking orders from the TSA — and even allows property to be confiscated from personal bags.
No one dares utter a word of protest or even complaint for fear of landing in the slammer. The goal is just to get to the other side of the government barrier, where the mini utopia of airport commerce awaits to serve us in a real way. We can shop for tchotchkes, shoes or bags or have a great lunch — and that hamburger and beer had better be served up immediately, else we will demand our rights!
We are masters of the universe as customers and as compliant as lambs when acting as citizens. And perhaps that’s easy to understand. The government has a gun pointing at our heads. The merchant is trying to persuade us to part with our money in exchange for goods and services. One won’t take no for an answer; the other sees no as part of daily life.
Still, we should be more conscious of the difference and appreciate what it means. The class of people who have chosen the path of persuasion over coercion are deserving of our gratitude, even when we don’t buy from them. The merchant class is that which makes everything possible in our lives: our homes, our food, our medical care, our clothing, our air conditioning, our computers, our music listening — absolutely everything that makes daily life tolerable and joyful.
We are too often tempted to think that the gas station, the drugstore, the restaurant, the fast-food franchise and the mommy-owned cupcake bakery are just given parts of the structure of our world. They are not. The decision to open a business is absolutely wrenching because the risk of failure is so high. The future is unknown in either a macroeconomic (will the economy collapse with falling incomes?) or microeconomic sense (maybe no one really wants to buy my stuff). Often, it involves cashing out retirement savings or being in hock to the banks. No matter what the business plan, it is scary.
And it’s not only about money. You end up buying lots of capital equipment that is not easily converted to other uses or sold at anywhere near the price you bought it. Custom chairs, tables, signs and other decorations are all a pure waste if the business doesn’t work.
You call yourself “boss,” but you know the truth. You are responsible, but not really the boss. The bosses are the consumers, whose fickle ways can make or break your new livelihood. You are completely at their mercy.
Then there is the issue of marketing. You believe in your product, but you can’t do it all yourself. You have to hire others to push, market and sell. It is necessarily true that these people you hire are not as strong in their belief in your good or service as you are. They must be a “salesperson” of fame — someone hired to be excited and interested in the craft, but who is most often more interested in other things.
Never underestimate the problem of inventory, which requires daily entrepreneurial judgments. If you are selling plywood, for example, and your first month’s sales are far beyond your expectations, your battles have just begun. You must make a judgment about next month’s inventory. Buy too much and you squander all your profits. Buy too little and you lose customers, who never come back. Your guesses must be close to correct all the time. But you have no crystal ball. And this problem never goes away: Whether you succeed or fail, you never know whether more success or failure is around the corner.
Then there’s the competition. Anyone is free to copy and replicate your successes. The more you succeed, the more you inspire imitators who are pleased to do exactly what you do but somehow manage to do it at a lower price. This means that you must constantly stay on your toes and innovate. At the same time, you have to always watch your back. A bad day of sales could mean nothing, or it could mean everything. It could be a bump on the road to glory or the foreshadowing of disaster. There’s no way to know for sure.
The forces of competition in a dynamic market are constantly working to take away your future successes. For the currently successful business, the market system amounts to a giant conspiracy to reduce your profits to zero. The only way to fight back is to serve others with ever more attention to excellence. If you think it is easy, try it yourself.
No matter how much your plans work out, there is nothing you can really count on for the future. Any day, any hour, it could all dry up. The consumers could go away. Fashions could change. The tastes of the spending class could shift. You are utterly and completely dependent on the subjective whims of everyone else. No matter how much determination you have, in the end, you just can’t control what others think or do. This is as true of the lemonade stand as it is of Amazon.com. No matter how big you get, no amount of money can buy a reliable fortuneteller.
Why does anyone do it? Why does anyone become a merchant or an entrepreneur? The usual rap is that people are in it for the money. But there is no bucket of money to grab. The money may or may not be there. And when it is there, it usually ends up being poured back into the business itself in order to stay on top.
So why do people do it? It has to do with the dream of success, the hope of making a difference, the living out of a vocation, the fulfillment of an ambition to serve and make a difference. This is what drives the entrepreneur.
And how do we repay them? We snarl and sneer, refuse to buy, criticize at the slightest misstep and otherwise refuse to give them credit for anything at all. We call them greedy and dismiss their pleas to buy as craven marketing. The state hectors these people with regulations, taxes, mandates and impositions far greater than the rest of us experience, yet people call ever more.
Often the merchant class is treated now as it was in the ancient world: as lowly and unfit. Yet here’s the truth: The merchant class is the class that brings us all the things we love the most. We depend on them, and they depend on us.
People living in the age of the leviathan state often feel powerless to do anything about the state of the world. I would suggest that one way to fight against the takeover of society by the state and its minions is to show a greater appreciation of their opposite. We should show love to the merchant class. We should begin by intellectually appreciating what they do for us. We should go further to actually say to the merchants how highly we regard their vocation.
To be sure, not all merchants are deserving of praise. Some are living off the state, lobbying for state favors, profiting from monopolies, pushing for regulations to hurt their competitors and the like. These things are made possible by the moral hazard that the state embodies; they were not created by the institution of commerce itself.
Managing our affections is one way to fight back against the encroachments of the state. We need to show love to the things and the people doing what is best for society and providing a model for others to follow. The model and ideal of the kind of peaceful and prosperous society we want to live in might be as close as the convenience store right down the street.