Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gratitude and. . . Capitalism?

Few words these days come with as much baggage as the dreaded moniker capitalist. Synonymous for many with greedy bastard, most defenses of the free market begin with some attempt to reclaim the title. My association with the appellation is perhaps the least expected: gratitude. How can this be? Well, the answer is pretty simple.

I'm not a world-class chef, nor am I a barber. I also can't make furniture, or microprocessors. Nor can I repair arteries, engines, or bridges. Moreover, my mortal self will never live so long as to learn, let alone perfect, those crafts. Setting skills aside, then, I don't even own the materials to make any of the aforementioned. Not copper or lumber or oil or silicon or wool. Moreover, I don't even have the property on which to store or from which to extract the materials. As you might imagine, then, I'm pretty grateful to sit in a house, at a desk, typing at a computer.

"That's all well and good," you might say, "but what does that have to do with money? People could make those things anyway." True, true. Imagine this for me, though.

I ask my neighbor, a master woodworker, to make me a desk. I tell him that I want it quite large and ornately adorned. He agrees, but quotes me no price and goes ahead to make the desk. I come back a few weeks later to pick up my desk and learn he has spent the whole month working solely on my desk. How honored I am, and what a desk!  So honored that I offer him $100, all I can afford for it. What can he do? I have no more money, although he can refuse to sell it to me. Either way, he's lost not only the resources, but the opportunity to have covered costs and made a profit. Now here's my particular point here: he needs the profit to buy food and gas and pay his mortgage and so forth, and he needs to buy those things because he can't make them, and he can't make them because he's a carpenter. He's a carpenter because he's good at it, so he takes the risk of refining his skill in the hope that people prefer his expertise to their own, or to not having crafted wood products at all.

Yes, at all. Well who else is going to make the desks? The dentist, the lawyer, the cook, the classicist? Of course not, the carpenter does, in the hope that he can make enough money to buy the things he can't make for himself. I say hope because he might not be able to do anything else.

Now without setting a price for his material and labor, how will he know how to use his limited time and limited resources to make enough money to afford what he needs. The fancy desk which takes a month to make and earns him $100 doesn't buy him what he needs so that plan won't work, but maybe if he can make a simpler desk in three days and sell it for $150, it profits him. That equilibrium is his to find, his equation to balance.  It is his burden to figure out how to serve as many patrons as he can with his limited skills so that he can support himself. No one can force him to make a certain price, but no one can give him the formula for success either. So how does gratitude fit into all of this?

I'm grateful that so many people can balance that equation not only well enough to support themselves, but with such ferocious ingenuity that I can afford such a fine desk and dual-core marvel of a computer, amidst other wonders. The next time you bemoan the stupidity of mankind, and we all do in our haughty, self-satisfied moments, look around at the thousands of people doing things you can't do. Look at the curves of the keys on your keyboard or the stitching on your shirt. It's actually pretty humbling, especially when you consider the alternative: everyone doing everything ourselves, most of it badly. Out the window goes excellence because no one can specialize and get good at anything because we're busy doing a little of everything. So no more phones, cars, or computers. "Fine," say the aesthetes who reject such pedestrian concerns, and whom I ask: would you prefer that Mozart, DaVinci, and Shakespeare have spent more time farming?

That's not all the gratitude, though, because I'm also grateful whenever people want my own services. First, I'm grateful they've chosen me over other people offering the same work. Second, I'm honored they're bringing something I make or do into their lives. In fact, I'm no less honored that a man lets me teach him Latin than I would be if he hung a portrait I painted in his living room. Customers have taken a part of their lives, the time they spent working for the money they paid me, and trusted me to fill it. Wow. Lastly, I'm grateful they're supporting me. Without them, I'd be out of luck, and money. They are my patrons.

All of this gratitude also engenders two other emotions. The first is the humility which comes when you realize you cannot, in fact, do everyone else's job, and that even if you could, you could never do all of them at the same time. Even if you can do the job of the bag boy or cashier, you have your own job to do, remember? So out the window goes the contempt for so-called "menial" jobs.

The second feeling is respect, both for the people whose money you have taken, your patrons, and for those you patronize. The former support you with money and the later support you with goods. Remember the money is useless unless you exchange it for something you want for its own sake. So it's all support, then, and that realization is what makes some libertarians, in my experience, such jolly and gracious people. They don't feel entitled to certain profits or see exploitation around every corner, but rather they see the serendipitous confluence of interests in the free exchanges of free people. Now that's something to be grateful for, and something beautiful too.

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