A frequent, though quite unjustified, charge against free markets is that they encourage what Karl Marx called the “cash nexus,” or what is also called “commodification”: treating people like items for sale. The claim is that when people engage in commerce, they are hardhearted, stingy, or (as movie director Oliver Stone and the Occupy Wall Street crowd would have it) greedy.
But this is a complete distortion. It’s been with us for centuries; in The Republic, Plato depicted merchants as the lowest rung of humanity, only concerned about the bottom line. Marx made one of his key criticisms of capitalism that the right to private property was a defense of selfishness. But the claim was very imprecise. The right to private property does secure for one the freedom to make use of one’s life, liberty, and property as one judges fit. Yet this can involve distributing one’s labor and resources for charitable purposes, as is well demonstrated by the vast sums wealthy people give away to others. What the critics resent is that they–that is, the critics–do not get to dictate to those with property rights. Property rights secure people’s liberty to determine how they will act, what they will do with what belongs to them. The critics want to be in charge of everyone’s wealth, which is why they support the public ownership of resources–the means of production–with the concomitant policy that the state, for which the critics are happy to speak, gets to say to what end those means will be dedicated.
Anyway, just a few examples of how those in markets are often the farthest thing from greedy can help one appreciate how wrong the critics are about people whose property rights are secure. Not only do some very wealthy people freely part with their wealth for purposes such as helping the poor or the sick or supporting the arts and sciences; in the marketplace, right where commerce is supposed to have replaced generosity with greed, there are many instances of helpful conduct.
I often find that the tiny screws in my eyeglasses get loose when I travel, and I then seek out a shop where glasses are sold and repaired and ask for help with my problem. Invariably, when I ask what the charge is for this service, I am waved away with the remark that there will be no charge at all. And this kind of thing happens all over the free marketplace! It refutes the charge that market processes drive out other forms of human interaction. Indeed, in markets, friendships are created; even romance is sparked. The idea that human beings in markets cannot take their eyes off the buck is bunk.
Anyone making such a claim must be either ignorant or desperately bent on demeaning human freedom, just as Marx did when he said that the right to property corrupts us to do nothing but act greedily. The fact is that people multitask in markets. They have many different motivations they can fulfill. Yes, they attempt to strike good economic deals, but that’s only a small part of the story. Just as people at a party do not simply seek to have fun but now and then search out professional advice and even an economic opportunity or two, so in the forums where the main focus is advancing one’s economic well-being, to strive to prosper, people often take a break and do something very different. Not to acknowledge this reveals rank prejudice, not any kind of grasp of how things work in the marketplace.
Tibor R. Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair at Chapman University and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, both in California.