Friendship and commercial societies
Politics, Philosophy & Economics, August 2008, Pages 301-326
Critics of commercial societies complain that the free-market system of property rights and freedom of contract tends to commodify relationships, thus eroding the bonds of personal and civic friendship. I argue that this thesis rests on a misunderstanding of both markets and friendship. As voluntary, reciprocal relationships, market relationships and friendship share important properties. Like all relations and activities that exercise important human capacities and play an important role in a meaningful life, market relations and activities are essentially structured and supported by ethical norms and, in turn, support these norms. The so-called norms of the market, such as instrumentality and fungibility, come in varying degrees and characterize not only market, but also nonmarket, relationships, including friendship. Furthermore, although market relationships are primarily instrumental, the individuals involved are not. The virtues of markets have their counterparts in friendship, as do their vices. For these and other reasons, market societies are not only not inimical to friendship, they create a more secure matrix for civic and personal friendship, as well as for other important values such as art, science, or philosophy, than any other developed form of society.
It does make one think of Adam Smith's discussion (WN, I, 1, 11) of the complexity of cooperation and dependency in market societies:
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brick-maker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them.
(Nod to KL)