I am a long-time advocate of free markets. Voluntary commerce is more or less the only moral way for humans to cooperate on a large scale; everything else involves coercion. And as a bonus, free markets work better than anything else.
That does not, however, mean that free markets deliver perfection, or that private businesses can’t be criminal. Private businesses can be abominable, and sometimes are. Understand this, please:
Markets are neutral structures. The only morality they have is the morality we bring to them.
What I want to talk about today are the three ways commerce has been polluted over the past century or so. Commerce has never been perfect, of course, simply because we aren’t perfect. (See that passage above once more.) But we’ve had three major pollutants over the past century, and I think they should be specified.
Pollutant #1: Mega-Government
Bureaucrats offering favors for money goes back to the very first bureaucrats, of course, but under the mega-governments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, this trick has reached astonishing proportions.
Consider Obamacare: The legislation was written by fronts for the biggest companies in the medical and insurance businesses, who have made huge profits while most Americans are paying far more for worse coverage.
Consider also the innumerable “free trade agreements.” Actual free trade involves governments getting out of the way. Modern “free trade” means government consortia writing deals that favor their friends and donors.
The public goes along with the charade, of course, but it’s pollution all the same.
And for today I’ll overlook the immense corruption of the war industries. Eisenhower warned everyone about that back in 1961 but still pretty much no one wants to hear it.
Pollutant #2: Mega-Corps
Back in World War I, as I’ve been told by businessmen older than myself, American companies made a killing in war production. Once that wound down, however, things got painful for them, and the biggest of them decided that they had to increase demand artificially. And so the bright lights of the era decided that they needed to turn the American people into a flock of suckers, perpetually buying things they didn’t need.
Here’s the signature quote, from Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers, writing in the Harvard Business Review of 1927:
We must shift America, from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America; man’s desires must overshadow his needs.
To put it succinctly, these corporate chieftains started using the weaknesses of their fellow men and women to extract money from them. And bear in mind that Sigmund Freud’s son-in-law, Edward Bernays, was the leading strategist for them. Here’s one of his thoughts:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society…
Understand what Mazur, Bernays et al, did: They waged a purposeful campaign to take advantage of human weaknesses. That, obviously, is also a pollution of commerce.
It would be illuminating to know what percentage of American spending is more or less needless. I’ve yet to see a good study, but I’d guess that it’s in the range of 20 or 30 percent. That’s an abomination. Commerce should bless the world, not drain it dry with status symbols, excess for the sake of excess, and empty trinkets.
Pollutant #3: Surveillance Capitalism
A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but it’s true all the same: Facebook, Google and the rest have used the oldest scam in the book – “Look little boy, I have free candy in the car” – to suck them dry.
These companies are malicious, vampire parasites. And if I had stronger words to use that didn’t involve profanity, I’d use them. They are stealing the essence of people’s lives (I could almost say stealing their souls) and are now bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars per year from it.
Many people still don’t want to see it – they’d have to admit their past errors, and they haven’t the guts for that – and so they’ll be manipulated all their lives. They’ll buy whatever beer the pretty, televised people are drinking, vote for candidate A or B, soak in the stories their manipulators give them, and walk toward the grave with “all of their thoughts mis-given,” as Led Zeppelin used to sing.
What To Do?
We all know what has to be done, but I’ll specify it anyway:
Stop accepting anything that’s “free.” Just don’t.
Treat status markers as signs of weakness and desperation, because that’s what they are.
Stop treating government as necessary until it proves itself so, empirically.
Aggressively do not buy anything thrust at you.
Commerce is essential to us. It’s time to clean it up.
And if you don’t think anything you do will matter, start building afresh in the crypto economy. Most everything matters there.
If you want a deeper understanding of these issues, see: