A few days ago, I was having lunch in my usual place when another customer walked in. He was a bit strange, kind of hard to understand, and maybe a bit rude and demanding to the workers. Nevertheless, his needs were met, and everything worked itself out smoothly.
We often hear ridiculous sayings such as that “Money is the root of all evil,” but these are naive. The root of all evil is human nature, which is often hampered by a myopic stupidity. A perfectly good example of this is the attitude that money is, in fact, the source of iniquity. Greed causes us to do horrible things with money sometimes, and it would be foolish to pretend that such things do not happen. But is money the real cause of this?
Consider all this in light of my experience at lunch the other day. The merchant-customer relationship is not one of power and servitude, but rather one of mutuality: the customer wants a sandwich, and the merchant wants a livelihood. Each helps to provide to the other what he needs. This results in a very wonderful thing: tolerance. I know many fine business owners who are very nice to me when I patronize them who probably wouldn’t have a beer with me if I paid them a million dollars—and vice versa, for that matter. This is not to be lamented. The fact is that we can provide for each other’s needs, and so we bear with whatever annoys us about the other person.
What could be a better illustration of the peace which free trade promotes? War is not trade, but rather organized usurpation run by the tyrants of the world and paid for with the blood of the handsome sons of our best mothers. Tolerance and co-existence are not spread by fiat, or by force, or even by a morbid self-sacrifice, but rather by a mutuality, by the realization that we need each other. Economic exchange helps us all to realize this more clearly.
Sometimes I think this truth is too simple for many people to accept. Virtue is supposed to be a product of “doing your duty” or of somehow suffering miserably, but in reality fraternity is nurtured by equality, by helping each other achieve the needs that we have, and no other system has proven to be better at this than the free market.
Imagine, for a moment, the reverse situation. The sandwich shop is not a business operating on the free market, but instead is a government bread distribution center in a socialist milieu. The “customer” does not go there because he would like to, but rather because he must; and the “merchant” is simply a bureaucrat who is under orders to give the “customer” whatever has been determined is his “right” to have in this society void of markets and indirect means of exchange (money). This creates an environment of entitlement on the part of the “customer” and of pure duty on the part of the “merchant.” The mutual benefit is gone. There is no incentive for each to get along with the other. Moreover, arguments ensue about how much each person or family is entitled to have, etc. This is a recipe for conflict, even for all-out violence.
We human beings have a tendency to see money flowing out of our hands like water through a grate, or we observe questionable behavior and wonder who has bribed whom, and we assume that maybe money is the root of all evil. But the devil—or, rather, in this case, the angel—is in the details. Every time you make a purchase, you are making a decision, as is the merchant every morning when he re-opens his shop and welcomes you in. The “thank-yous” exchanged at the end of a transaction are more than perfunctory, or at least they should be.
Remember this the next time some jackass starts complaining about wealth and how filthy it is. Yes, there are evil rich people, but I have also known dishonest poor people. The problem is human nature, not money. If anything, money mitigates the bad aspects of our flawed constitution, taking our selfishness and turning it into a veritable good for all parties involved in any given exchange.
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