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Neighborliness vs. business relationships

I've always vaguely believed that being an asshole now and then is somehow part of being a good businessman. Here, Rick Saenz explores the relationship between business practices and neighborliness, and provides a historical argument to support my vague belief. After quoting an almost perfectly chosen passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Saenz writes:

What the people of DeSmet have forgotten, along with the rest of us, is that business practices were explicitly developed as an alternative to neighborliness, not an elaboration or enhancement of it. Karl Polanyi points out in his book The Great Transformation that until recently business trade was a relatively limited endeavor, taking place between towns and cities, leaving the countryside (and most of the population) largely unaffected. The reason was that there was no reliable means of enforcing business arrangements with villagers; until recently, a business dispute with a customer in a village had to be settled in that hard-to-get-to village, before a council of elders that might very well decide in favor of the villager if it was determined that the deal was somehow unfair to him. Business practices, especially enforcable legal contractual obligations, were developed specifically so people could conduct transactions with people who weren’t their neighbors.

What I take from this (not having read Polanyi) is that business practices are an alternative set of norms meant to enable commercial transactions between distant people, or between people who for any reason cannot interact in ways that go beyond the roles they play as buyer or seller in a business transaction. The difference between a business relationship and neighborliness is one of breadth. We know our neighbors in their roles as buyers and sellers but we also know them in their roles as fathers and as chess enthusiasts. We come close to knowing our neighbors as whole persons who play many roles. In contrast, as a businessman we are only required to know people in one narrow role defined by a contractual relationship: buyer, seller, lender, tenant, landlord. That's why Saenz can say "...you shouldn’t be outraged or even surprised if you are being treated badly as a person" by someone you're doing business with. You shouldn't expect to be treated as a whole "person."

Let's put aside all the possible objections to this account and assume it's mostly accurate. The consequences both good and bad are obvious. The good: we can rely on commercial engagements with people who live far away and who aren't neighbors. We can avail ourselves, therefore, of a wider range of goods at a wider range of prices. Mostly because we can, as businessmen, afford to ignore much of the personality of those people we deal with.

The bad: by expanding our commercial reach by reducing human beings to narrowly defined roles, we sacrifice our sensitivity to the broader consequences of what we do. This is, in fact, the central problem with the "industrial" society that agrarianism attempts to reveal and to criticize. How do we justify the cruelty, the waste, and the destruction of globalized industrial society? We don't, because we don't have to. We've changed the rules so that we can ignore these things and, to the extent that we recognize their existence, we can treat them as problems external to our own actions, to be ameliorated with whatever charitable impulses we care to indulge in from time to time.

One obvious way to cure the faults of purely business relationships is legal. Good law governing contracts can help to minimize the gap between "treating people right" and relating on a purely business level with your contract partners. More generally, can we ameliorate the problems of global industrialized society with good regulation by the state? Maybe so, if these regulations force us to deal with the previously unseen and unrecognized "externalities" of our behavior. E.g., a regulation prohibiting the sale of shirts made in sweatshops prevents us from buying these, even when we're largely unaware of how or where our clothes are made on the other side of the world. Assuming a well-functioning government, this approach might work -- but that kind of government seems fantastical.

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