“Commercial Society” Is a Myth

Progressive and conservative critics of open migration frequently dismiss calls for freedom of movement as rooted in narrowly economic concerns. Proponents of freedom point out that, despite what you might hear on TV, immigration yields widespread benefits for both the societies to which immigrants go and those from which they come. And they emphasize the importance of respecting the freedom of people to establish work and business relationships with others whatever their respective nationalities. But, the critics say, it’s not just about economics. Advocates of freedom think about society as just a “giant shopping mall.” By contrast, the critics say, they understand that a nation is so much more than this. As ethnonationalist dog-whistler and former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon puts it, “A country’s more than an economy.”

The critics’ appeal to nationalism is uninspiring. But ignore for the moment the association of nationalism with lethal ethnic and religious violence and the suppression of minorities. Focus on the charge that defenders of freedom—in this case, freedom to migrate—think of “society” as nothing more than commercial.

This charge suggests that people who care about freedom just want a society in which people are free to make money. But, as a general matter, the idea of this kind of society is bizarre.

There are lots of ways to make money. In our society, too often, people make money by participating in or actually helping to create and maintain cartels rooted in law—like the cartels created by professional licensing requirements that drive up consumer prices. Too often, they make money by participating in cronyish relationships with government agencies that funnel tax money to favored entities in support of activities that would never be funded at anything like the same level in a genuinely freed market; think about the military-industrial complex as an obvious example. But, in a truly freed market, people make money by offering consumers (or other producers) what they want.

For some people, doing things that make them money can be an amazing exercise of skill and creativity. For some, participating in the ongoing, unpredictable drama of the market can be a kind of play, just like engaging in a sport. But notice that even people enthusiastically engaged in business for these reasons aren’t, like Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, trying to make money for its own sake: they’re testing and challenging themselves and others and relishing the experience of play.

Most participants in market activity—whether producers, distributors, or consumers—have more immediate, instrumental goals. They want to make money, not for its own sake, and not, typically, because the process is itself engaging, but in order to achieve their other goals. They want to flourish in all sorts of diverse ways: to make art, to spend time with friends, to nourish children, to experience beauty, to grow stronger and healthier. Consumers’ purchases, like the money producers and distributors make (which enables them to become consumers), equip them to pursue their own objectives, to flourish in the ways they want to flourish.

Sometimes, people engage in commercial transactions with friends and neighbors. More often in today’s world, they engage in such transactions with strangers. On occasion, this enables strangers to become friends. But, whether it does or not, it enables the participants in each transaction to realize their own goals more effectively, to flourish in the ways they choose.

Progressive and conservative critics of immigration freedom don’t want producers and consumers to engage in transactions with unapproved strangers, with people who don’t have the right sorts of permission slips from government authorities. They seem to think that controlling who gets these permission slips will make it possible for those who don’t want just a “commercial society” to have the kind of society they want instead. That means one, in particular, in which the critics and those like them won’t have to deal with unfamiliar faces and accents and smells and folkways, a national community in which people look and act alike.

The critics’ objection, then, is ultimately to a society in which particular people decide with whom they will interact and how they will shape their own lives. The critics don’t like the effects of free choices by particular people. They want a society in which these effects can be nullified, in which their own vision of the good life can be forcibly imposed on others.

They mask their objection as a challenge to a narrowly focus on money. But almost no one adopts that kind of focus. The critics’ real objection is to a society in which commercial freedom presupposes and permits personal freedom, the freedom to flourish in an immense variety of distinct ways. Their idea of a “nation” is a homogenous society, with its homogeneity maintained by means of top-down control. What they call commercial society is really just society organized from the bottom up. Commerce is a means to the end of freedom. The critics’ nationalism can’t coexist with freedom; but, since freedom is so obviously important to so many people, they attack commerce instead. In so doing, they make clear that they want their vision of common life maintained by force.

Commercial society is a vastly better alternative—not because life is about making money, but because commercial freedom underlies the experience and expression of human diversity.

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