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Manners and Markets
by Bruce Walker
22 June 2003 

Good manners is an intrinsic part of any market transaction. This helps explain why cultures with a tradition of polite and respectful behavior, even when they engaged in failed socialist experiments, may be relative successes.

The benefits of consensual relationships are more than monetary. We enjoy life in ways that are impossible to calculate in dollars or quantify effectively at all. The love of a parent, the seeker’s thirst for truth or justice, and the passion of the pious are things for which thoughtful people give their lives. Tort lawyers try to quantify these benefits, but they cannot. Those who love liberty are characterized as one-dimensional misers. We are not.

Loving liberty means loving the right to chose values. The market is simply a convenient way of showing, when people choose to relate to each other, how they freely interact. And people may choose not to interact at all. Withdrawing from the market is an exercise of liberty. Hermits, monks, and solitary poetesses (like Emily Dickinson) may seek nothing from others, or may find the costs of dealing with the world greater than the benefits.

But the vast majority of us participate in the market of human interaction, a market that includes every type of human relationship - economic, artistic, social, religious and every other need that people have and that is satisfied by the company of others. Within this great market, the economic portion - what we often call "The Market" - is just one aspect of the whole pattern of the whole interchange of human values, and money is an easy, though imperfect, way of quantifying economic value. Calculating all human interaction in dollars may be helpful in many ways, but total it is no more subtle than any other single measurement of the market, and total reliance upon dollars as a measure of value degrades the elegance of the market.

The market reflects every value that humans can imagine. That spectrum of values certainly includes the most basic social value: human interaction itself. How does the market manifest this interest in good human interaction? By rewarding good manners. Each culture has a concept of good manners, and although these vary considerably, there is a common thread. Manners express respect for other people.

Good manners are the most efficient way to express respect for others. It is possible, but clumsy, to express this respect without good manners (it is equally possible and equally clumsy to describe how to perform a symphony without musical notes). Bargainers with bad manners quickly wind up in the small and lonely corners of the bazaar.

This is not theory. Any salesman or waitress can tell you that good manners are an intensely practical aspect of the market. These producers produce good manners as a primary benefit of their human interaction with others. They are nice. They are polite. They are thoughtful. This behavior has a direct dollar value - sure - but it is much greater value than dollars.

A good salesman will help his customer find the best product at the best price with the least inconvenience, and that generates profits for the customer. But the salesman will leave the customer with a good feeling. A good salesman will brighten the customer’s day. Any successful salesman knows this. Any successful salesman will have good manners, consideration and empathy. What does the customer want? Besides what is in the catalog, what would make the customer happy?

Some will say that this is phony. The door to door salesman does not really "care" about the housewife at the next doorbell. And, in a way, that is correct. He does, however, understand that he must be perceived to care about each customer, and such personal interest is hard to do if it is total fiction. So salesmen try very hard to care, and that comes across to those who succeed.

The polite words of a salesman, like the polite words of a diplomat, may not be sincere, but the polite words are real. Nice words spoken nicely do convey a sense of contentment in peace in the listener. That is why diplomats use courtesy as a tool, and that is why generals do not. Diplomacy tries to gain without violence; war tries to gain with violence. So diplomats and salesmen bathe regularly, use mouthwash and deodorant, dress attractively, speak in pleasing tones, shake hands, listen attentively and do all sorts of other little things that add up to one big thing: making the other person content.

Thus clever diplomacy and slick salesmanship replace war and robbery with words and good feelings. And, as with all market transactions, everyone wins - especially those who offer good manners as an additional value to the transaction.

Rewarding good manners produces a society that is less threatening and less violent. Good manners produce this healthy effect in each individual transaction, but good manners also permeate general social behavior.

When people in general are polite, then those boorish people who inspire violent thoughts in others look even worse. This also helps explain why cultures with a tradition of polite and respectful behavior, even when they engaged in failed socialist experiments, may be relative successes. Sweden and Denmark are excellent examples of nations in which the general expectation of good manners has magnificently minimized the harm of collectivism.

Bigotry, crudity, nastiness - in polite society these undesirable traits have costs beyond dollars. Good manners are critical in romance and in friendships, in political discourse and in religious proselytizing. Small wonder then that in free societies good manners tend to permeate society in general. False? Plastic? No, truly good manners. When people generally treat you with good manners, then if you do not reciprocate, you will be relatively poor, lonely, and unpersuasive.

It goods deeper than just having good manners. As many have noted, all of us are in some sense a salesman or a saleswoman. Unless we choose a monastery or a cabin in the woods, we will succeed in life to a large extent based upon how well we can sell. And this - again - requires at least some degree of believing in what you are doing. It is not just that racial bigotry, for example, has financial and social consequences which require its suppression. A person who hates black people or white people because of their skin color will have a much harder time acting politely in crucial situations than someone who genuinely views each person as a person. So, like salesmen, people learn to develop empathy and respect to give them an "edge" in the market. What began as insincere becomes, over time, sincere.

Does the grand benefit of civil behavior come at the cost of individuality? What of the hard-bitten inventor who does the impossible? What of the artist who spits at the hypocrisy of the world? What of the iconoclast who spits in the eye of comfortable conventions? Does the dramatic advantage derived from polite conduct and consequent social conformity crush these vital characters?

Sure. Sure it does. But it does not crush them to death. These truly original people swim against the tide of humanity, but what tools will we allow humanity to use back? Ostracism or murder? Poverty and isolation or torture and death?

What sounds like a grim alternative is not really so grim. The starving artist has his rewards. The wandering prophet has his satisfaction. And when the art is true, then paintings created in a cold and grimy apartment wind up in the Louvre, and when the preachings are righteous then they take root in the hearts of men. There is a struggle and there is a balance. Every human desire - security, love, peace, truth, fame, righteousness, beauty and all the rest - will always find a better balance of these than the alternative of the gun barrel.

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