No matter how much I’m convinced that the commercial marketplace is more magnificent than we know, there are times when I’m sure there’s even more to it.
What if the presence of commerce is actually a reason we have hope day to day? What if its presence or absence is a reason for whether we love life or hate it? What if it affects our outlook for ourselves and humanity at large?
Big questions but here is a story that illustrates why I’m asking them.
I was recently flying out of the country through the Los Angeles international airport. I was in some long, zig-zaggy line, awaiting one of many government-run checkpoints. This line, if I remember correctly, was just checking to see if we had passports and boarding passes.
But it was very long. It was an hour wait. We were standing shoulder to shoulder. Imagine cattle lined up for the slaughterhouse.
The monotony was intense. You go one direction and look at the faces of people on both sides of you walking the other direction. You round the corner and wait a few minutes and see the same people yet again. Déjà vu.
At every step, people have to move their bags. The lights were low and hot. The smell just seemed like a mass of sweat from all over the world.
There were unruly kids. People were speaking every language. Every manner of shabby clothing was on display, everyone prepared for a long trip. The multiplicity of languages was cacophonous. Manners didn’t really exist. The only source of order was the line. Faces looked grumpy. People really were grumpy. And tired. And annoyed.
This was a setting in which everything seemed awful. Nothing was right. And the sense of annoyance on everyone’s part was palpable. Of course people should have been annoyed at the government, but the government was not what we were seeing. We were seeing each other.
Therefore, we became the object of each other’s irritation. Hearts sunk, tempers were on edge, and everyone felt vaguely trapped with people unlike themselves.
It was depressing, even dreadful. If this were all we knew about the human condition, Schopenhauer would have been right: “On the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Eventually I got through the line, as did everyone else. We stepped past the guard and opened the door to a corridor and walked through. We were passing from the realm of government to the realm of private enterprise.
We could hear music. And then we saw. Ceilings stretched up five or six floors. There were huge 3-D murals than were animated and changed their theme every 10 mins. There were luxury shops and vendors everywhere. There were beautiful wine bars, pastry shops, computer stores, clothing and handbag dealers, money exchange counters, massage chairs.
There were smiles all around. Thousands were there from all lands. They all spoke different languages, dressed in different clothing, all special in their own way. Children ran from here to there. People were engaging each other in lovely ways, despite religion, ethnicity, origin. Passersby would nod with smiles and friendly gestures that allowed us to communicate without language. The music was upbeat and ebullient.
What an amazing community! And how it so beautifully exhibited the brotherhood of man! It might as well be the World’s Fair. All was right with the world. Nothing was wrong.
It took me about 10 minutes of walking around in this little utopia to have a sudden and astonishing realization.
These were the same people with whom I had just stood in line!
It wasn’t the people who made the difference between the darkness and the light. It was the spirit of the people that had changed, practically from one instant to the next. And why did it change? Government didn’t go away.
What changed was the absence vs. the presence of commerce. This is another way of saying that in one setting, people were made into slaves of a system and had nothing to gain from trade; in the other, people were cooperating to their mutual betterment, in an innovative setting designed to serve them.
It’s as if commerce sprinkled magic fairy dust over the same population and turned night to dawn, dreariness to sunshine, evil to good. It was absolutely remarkable. Life was no longer a disappoint or a cheat. Life became good, beautiful, infinitely worth living and loving.
This is what annoys me so much about people who put down commercial life, treating it as if it is some kind of hidden despotism or tyranny. And plenty of people do say this. They don’t inhabit the same world as I do. For when I look around, I see the opposite. In every sector, commerce is the thing that brings beauty, ebullience, liberation, and true community — indeed happiness itself! — whereas it is the state that drains us of all those things.
The most terrifying dystopia is already here. It is airport security in which bureaucrats manage our comings and goings and stuff us into a system that is ruled entirely by edicts and we are robbed completely of our agency and volition. Our job is only to obey. Our personalities, preferences, and ideals must all disappear.
But our utopia is also already here. It is the social setting of free human association, discovery, service, and individual initiative that leads to the beautiful anarchy of production, progress, and inner happiness. You may not always feel it but you would certainly know its absence.
Let the academic psychologists continue to write their books on how free markets don’t make us happy. Some people can’t be made happy no matter what. It is perhaps true that we will never know total fulfillment outside of Heaven itself. But this much we know from experience. It is possible to make this world a Hell, and only one institution specializes in doing just that.