There’s this nice woman who works at the local Goodwill who is always happy to see me come in the door. She thinks she knows what I’m looking for and enjoys running to get things that recently arrived at the shop: bookends, or cufflinks, or small lamp in a classical style. Together we revel in the bargains. When I purchase something, she feels a sense of joy. My patronage supports the work of the store, which is charitable. I too feel joy. It’s a special moment, of the sort the brings joy to life and makes what sometimes seem like a dark world just a bit brighter.
The context is commerce, the source of an endless stream of such personal encounters. We should take note of them and learn the lesson. Realizing the full extent to which commerce brings us delight and generally fosters the kind of human connection we all seek – one in which we discover dignity in others and they in us – has the potential to change the way we think about markets themselves. They are an indispensible foundation of a society built on love.
These experiences are not always personal. Last week I took a couple of hours, in the middle of the afternoon, to be amazed and thrilled by an action-packed movie, shown in a theater built for me though I never requested it, a movie that required a production structure of thousands of people, with some of the most skilled talent in the world, all for the purposes of delighting me. Others too. What these people wanted from me was $7, in exchange for which I received an adventure experience that would have been unattainable anywhere on the planet just a few decades ago.
I felt loved. It’s an interesting kind of love. I don’t know any of the people who did this for me. But that they did it for me, I have no need to doubt, because as a consumer I possess the power to affirm or decline to affirm their every effort.
I had to wait until the end of the movie during the credits to even know their names. They don’t know my name either, even though everything they do in their lives is targeted toward my interests. So it’s not personal love. It’s more like structural love, a system-wide devotion to mutual benefaction based on giving and getting.
I had ordered cheese popcorn. I didn’t know that eating a small bag would effectively give me a second skin on my hand made of cheese powder. It took lots of scrubbing in the men’s room to remove it. I returned to the concession to get some regular popcorn, and, in passing, mentioned my issue with the cheese. The person at the counter was mortified and offered to give me my money back.
I assured her that this was not a disaster really, and that I was perfectly fine. But I could still tell that she was truly upset, genuinely concerned that I was not entirely pleased. We exchanged a series of assurances that all is well. We smiled at each other. We wanted the best for each other. I walked off with a sense a happiness that comes from courtesies of these sorts. I didn’t know her and I might never see her again, but there was still love there: a mutual affirmation of the inherent dignity of the other.
These stories might sound trivial. They happen to all of us every day, and are a part of every commercial encounter. Yes, sometimes things go wrong: a clerk is rude, a customer gets too demanding, there is some misleading or manipulation going on. But that’s just the point. We recognize this as the exception, and we work to fix it because we know it can be fixed. The driving ethos and ideal of commercial exchanges is that sense of affection, even devotion, to the ideal that everyone is better off.
This is the etiquette, ethos, and ethics of the commercial spirit. It is about love.
Is that too strong a word? C.S. Lewis famously distinguished four loves organized by their intensity: storge, philia, eros, and agape.
Storge he describes as affection, a type of love. This is the core of what we find in commercial life. It is uncoerced and mutually regarding. “The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not; people who, if they had not found themselves put down by fate in the same household or community, would have had nothing to do with each other,” he writes. “Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”
What he is really describing here is a feature of the regular course of events of capitalism, which is best thought of not as a system but a network of human relationships based on exchange.
Clearly, for centuries, the whole point of capitalism has been missed. It is not about material greed much less exploitation and exclusion. Its fundamental theme is love of this special sort. That is its driving energy and ethos. This love permeates every aspect of its operations. It requires love. It rewards love. It elicits love. It lives on love.
Think of the fundamental unit of capitalism: the exchange. You own and I own. We could keep what we possess. But we are attentive to bettering our lot. We discover something remarkable, namely that if we cooperate we could both be better off. I want what you have and you want what I have. You value mine more than yours and I value yours more than mine.
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.
This act of love takes place trillions of times a day all over the world. The act can be as simple as exchanging money for a cup of coffee or as complex as a multi-billion dollar company changing ownership. In substance, these are the same acts. It is all about the giving spirit: you give me value and I give you value. We discover that in our mutual association, in the act of giving to get and getting only when giving, that our lives are improved.
We need each other. We trust each other. We are lovers. Indeed, the rarely used Latin term commercium literally means sex, but came to be more commonly used in medieval spiritual writing to refer to the incarnation: God becoming flesh in a wondrous exchange (O admirabile commercium) between time and eternity, one that ends in the ultimate act of love (agape). This is the root of the term commerce. Love — even the divine love that leads to a new creation — is present in every exchange.
It is easy to see how storge can lead to philia, which is friendship. Think of your co-workers, business partners, long-term customers, and other relationships. They begin in the affections that are a normal part of commercial life but then intensify as these relationships persist. You need each other and therefore become more deeply concerned about each other. You celebrate birthdays. You cheer moments in life like weddings. You weep together over sad turns of events.
Commercial relations turn into social occasions and deepening friendships. There are dinners, drinks out, backyard parties. Social circles begin to be organized around them. They become centers of mutual learning and more benefaction. Philia extends outward from them. We all know this from experience. Commerce may not form the basis of a permanent bond but it can be its introduction and foundation, the occasion for coming together and growing together through the years.
The next form of love spoken about by Lewis is eros, and this meaning is well known, and the most common meaning of the term love today. It is known to create in the human mind something extraordinary and even biological. It gives the heart a lift and affects the way we see the world. Through eros, old things take on a new shape. We are inspired to imagine new possibilities. We see things in our mind that previously had not existed. Through eros there is a blossoming of the human spirit, a conviction that the world can be made new. It feels like a new dawn, and we wake every day with a sense of possibility. This is the work of eros.
Where do we find this in the world of economics? If you have ever known an entrepreneur with a dream, and you have listened to this dream and watched as it unfolded, you see the realization of eros. The entrepreneur is a lover of something he or she can see that does not yet exist, and from this comes the inspiration to take wild risks and work unfathomably hard to see that love realized. And where is this love directed? Toward the discovery and service of others’ needs, because it is the consuming public that is in a position to say whether it was all worth it.
Eros in the classical world was known for its capacity to lead to the overthrow of whole kingdoms and becoming the force for the turning of history. In the world of commercial capitalism, eros becomes a source of new shopping centers, new technologies, new software applications, new fashions and style — all things that cause the material world to avoid the natural trajectory towards decline and instead give a lift to life itself. Eros is the source of progress because it inspires us to depart from what is and believe in what could be.
It is easy to wonder sometimes why it is that merchants and entrepreneurs do what they do. Why spend the time, the resources, the energy, the risking of reputation and credibility, all in the service of a goal that is statistically very unlikely to ever really result in profits? It truly is a form of beautiful insanity — precisely that kind of insanity that is the foundation of every romance. Entrepreneurs are lovers.
These forms of love are woven into the fabric of the voluntary society where exchange flourishes and creates new value, where commercial relationships lead to deep friendships and networks of mutual aid, where dreamers breathe deeply the air of freedom and imagine the possibility of creating worlds that do not yet exist and commit their lives fully to see them come to fruition.
To be sure, the market is not a path to agape; they do not and cannot create a connection between time and eternity, nor pave a salvific path to immortality. We should not expect them to do so; that fourth type of love requires more than the material world can offer. For this supposed failure, markets have come under fire and their displacement sought, inevitably, by politics that promises to usher in a new age of the spirit. It's a delusion that threatens to circumscribe and cut off opportunities all of us have within markets to experience dignified lives full of voluntary human connection.
Love is an affair of the heart. It extends from our fundamental right to choose. It is instantiated only through the exercise of human volition inspired by our own values. These features of love are realized not only in friendship, and not only in sexuality, but also, and in the most common and socially beneficial way, through the material world, in the ceaseless effort to grow the bounty of wealth for us all.
And so it has been for 150 millennia, from the dawn of time to our time, the longest and most cumulative story of at least three forms of love working themselves out in the course of human events, drawing us out of the state of nature and always into a future full of promise, all with the dream of a world of unbounded plenty. The story of this material rise, and the commercial relationships that give us so much of what we need and want and hope for in the future, is a story of love.