21 September 2017

Doux Commerce and the Chicken-and-the-Egg Conundrum

A few folks might be familiar with the doux commerce thesis of 20th century social philosopher Albert Hirschman. In short, commerce makes men good:
Commerce attaches [men] one to another through mutual utility. Through commerce the moral and physical passions are superseded by interest...Commerce has a special character which distinguishes it from all other professions. It affects the feelings of men so strongly that it makes him who was proud and haughty suddenly turn supple, bending and serviceable. Through commerce, man learns to deliberate, to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action. Sensing the necessity to be wise and honest in order to succeed, he flees vice, or at least his demeanor exhibits decency and seriousness so as not to arouse any adverse judgement on the part of present and future acquaintances; he would not dare make a spectacle of himself for fear of damaging his credit standing and thus society may well avoid a scandal which it might otherwise have to deplore. (Emphasis added.)
Hirschman is in good company. Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine and many others thought the same. Reversing the teachings of the Classical and Christian traditions they believed that the virtues of liberal toleration are the result of trade and commerce.

Nate Oman (previous posts on Oman's work along these lines here, here, and here) agrees. And he's written a full-length book explaining why: Nathan B. Oman, "The Dignity of Commerce: Markets and Moral Foundations of Contract Law" (Chicago 2017).

I'm sceptical and so is Mark Movesian. It's not that markets are not intimately connected with morality but it's not clear which comes first. Movesian, quoting Edmund Burke, believes that morality comes first. As he notes here in his review of Oman's book, 
The conservative critique of the doux commerce thesis, associated most closely with Burke, carries considerable power. Burke favored markets, toleration, and pluralism, but he didn’t see any of them as inevitable, and he didn’t think markets alone could produce the other two. For Burke, the doux commerce thesis had cause and effect backwards. The market doesn’t create virtues and habits; rather, it depends on pre-existing virtues and habits, like law-abidingness, probity, toleration, and trust, all of which people bring to it from the wider culture, especially from religion. Without those pre-existing virtues and habits, the market could not exist.
I've read enough of Oman's previous works to believe I would agree with Movesian's observations. But for those who are interested in this question, I'm confident that Oman's book would be an excellent place to start. 

(For another, more technical review go here.)

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