May 30, 2020 Reading Time: 6 minutes

A friend, born in China, has lived in the United States for many years. This spring, she was teaching her microeconomics class on Zoom when two voices rang out, quickly peppering her with questions: 

“What’s the price of bats?”

“You know, the bats in Wuhan, Professor Corona! The reason we have this online class.”

“The F__king bats for dinner, Professor Corona.”

The voices were not her students, but they were from her University. My friend had experienced Zoombombing—the recent phenomenon of uninvited individuals disrupting a Zoom session.

My friend was shaken. Living with her husband and child, America was her home; and she had never experienced such hatred.

Others have had similar experiences. Attacks on Asians are becoming sadly too common

With commercial transactions shrinking and the visible hand of government expanding, a rise in tribal hatred comes as no surprise. Politicians point fingers. Government promotes fear, distorting our perceptions. With the economy imploding, we have the perfect set of conditions to bring out the worst in us.

In contrast, the demands of commerce bring out the best in us. Markets consist of individuals and businesses who succeed by building trust. Commercial transactions lead us to see our common humanity. Those who cannot see people as people do not do very well under capitalism. 

A recent Wall Street Journal essay by Dr. Susan Pinker points out that reduced face-to-face interactions with other people may be fueling an increase in expressions of disgust. Pinker writes, “Disgust evolved in humans to protect us from real dangers, such as eating rotten food, but when applied to other people it can lead to feelings of moral superiority and social avoidance.”

Pinker points us to a recent paper by 36 psychologists and neuroscientists who warn that “feelings of disgust can bleed into how we form impressions of other people. With worries about physical health more salient, people may become more judgmental of others’ behavior and make less charitable interpretations.” The result, as my economist friend experienced, is that “reflexive feelings of disgust can turn into anger and hostility against out-groups.”

The former president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks, points out that “disgust is a hardcore negative emotion and it [should be] reserved for pathogens.” Brooks adds, “People are not made for disgust. When we treat people with disgust, they perceive us as treating them like a pathogen, and that’s hatred. You would never treat someone you love with hatred, and yet we have a cultural kind of predilection these days when you disagree with somebody to express disgust.”

An Antidote to Fear is Commerce 

Capitalism, Jeffrey Tucker reminds us “is best thought of not as a system but a network of human relationships based on exchange.” Tucker continues, “love permeates every aspect of [capitalism’s] operations. It requires love. It rewards love. It elicits love. It lives on love.”

Tucker is not talking about romantic love but an “uncoerced and mutually regarding” affection.

Trust is the mindset that fuels that affection. Tucker writes, “We come together in trust. We exchange, out of choice. Though nothing has changed about the material world, we have created value and wealth, something we know by reflecting on our inner sense of well-being. It’s an act of love.”

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki writes, “This relationship between capitalism and trust is usually invisible, simply because it’s become part of the background of everyday life.” 

Like fish who do not realize they are swimming in water, many do not know they reap the benefits of human cooperation, cooperation that is fueled by trust. They see themselves as victims of greed, blind to the origins of the miraculous bounty all around them. 

Trust is a habit of mind that evolved under capitalism. Today fear and even disgust are replacing love and trust. Our ability to transcend tribal differences is being frayed, undermining the foundations of a commercial society. 

Surowiecki points us to the example of 18th and 19th century English Quakers who were well-known for a “personal emphasis on absolute honesty.” The Quaker model was a powerful one. Surowiecki observes, “as Quaker prosperity grew, people drew a connection between that prosperity and the reputation for reliability and trustworthiness.”

Honesty paid, and not just for the Quakers. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, wrote, “when the greater part of people are merchants they always bring probity and punctuality into fashion.”

Trust did not grow because merchants are especially good people. As Surowiecki explains, trust grew because “the benefits of trust—that is, of being trusting and of being trustworthy—are potentially immense, and because a successful market system teaches people to recognize those benefits.” In short, “Flourishing economies require a healthy level of trust in the reliability and fairness of everyday transactions. If you assumed every potential deal was a rip-off or that the products you were buying were probably going to be lemons, then very little business would get done.”

The development of trust in free markets was not the result of government regulation. Businesses have an incentive to enhance their reputation for integrity. 

Recently, I purchased a pair of hiking boots from L. L. Bean. Did I fear that L. L. Bean could be selling me shoddy boots because boot manufacturers may be bribing Bean’s purchasing agents? The question is ridiculous. Reputation is one of the essential brand assets of L. L. Bean, and their corporate culture scrupulously protects the brand’s integrity. 

In his book, Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, John Mueller imagines the consequences if L. L. Bean “were to attempt to enhance its reputation for business integrity by establishing a policing organization in cooperation with a governmental agency guaranteeing that any customer cheated by the company would receive quick and full recompense.” 

Mueller explains why a guarantee based on government agency policing “would generate, rather than lower, concern about the company’s integrity, and it would almost certainly reduce sales.” A sounder business practice for Bean is to continue to do what they have always done and rely on its well-earned “reputation for honesty.” 

Mueller echoes Surowiecki when he writes, “Under capitalism, virtue is considerably more than its own reward: contrary to its image capitalism tends… to reward business behavior that is honest, fair, civil, and compassionate.”

Well-earned reputations, like those earned by Bean cannot be faked. Mueller writes, “people who are genuinely honest, fair, civil, and compassionate are more likely to succeed in business than those who simply feign such qualities.” In short, those with a lack of virtue fail and nice guys tend to finish first when government is not tipping the scales.

My economist friend is teaching in a business school. Without a change of heart, her hecklers can only hope to support themselves via a government check; markets do not value their lack of virtue. 

Trusting Those Outside Your Tribe

Before capitalism developed, Surowiecki explains, “trust had been the product primarily of a personal or in-group relationship—I trust this guy because I know him or because he and I belong to the same sect or clan—rather than a more general assumption upon which you could do business.” Capitalism made possible the trusting of a stranger “with whom you had ‘no prior personal ties.’” 

“In place of relationships founded on blood or affection,” markets create relationships based on the benefits of mutual exchange. In short, Surowiecki observes, “Capitalism, ultimately, widens horizons, because it makes the idea of trusting only people within your particular ethnic or geographic group seem outmoded.” 

Today, horizons for commercial transactions and personal interactions are shrinking. Today we avoid meeting new people for fear of COVID-19 contagion. Politicians have promoted a false narrative encouraging a tribal split among those claiming to want to save lives and those falsely accused of caring only about the stock market.

A coalition is emerging among the untrusting. The coalition transcends ideological grounds. Those who fear their neighbor and those who fear China are joining hands to cheer the destruction of liberty. Recently in a Staten Island, New York supermarket, a crowd of angry shoppers demanded an unmasked shopper leave the store. Others have even called for the elimination of in-person shopping. Trump and Biden will probably compete this fall by promising to get tougher on China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened to increase tariffs on goods from Hong Kong, a commerce center that is an engine of prosperity for humanity. A union among the untrusting will increase fear and further diminish trust and cooperation, reducing commerce and human well-being.

Anger and disgust drive these fears. Brooks reminds us that when we let those negative emotions hijack our thought process, we allow the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, to hijack our values and reason.

We can interrupt the amygdala hijack. Brooks counsels us to pause and allow reason to catch up with negative emotions. To help that process, you might choose to notice your own thinking. When you catch yourself processing an easy tribal story of heroes and villains, consider looking in another direction.

We can choose to embrace and enable our true nature. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “We were born to work together.” For a person to believe otherwise is, in the words of Einstein, an “optical delusion of his consciousness.” 

Government is tearing asunder a network of human relationships, a network of exchange fueled by love and trust. For the sake of humanity, by our choices, we must put it back together by our uncoerced and mutual regard for people.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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