On commerce and civilization

An important essay at the Mises Institute on the relationship between commerce and civilization, says:

The merchant class has been the most reviled in the history of political thought. Their very existence sticks in the craw of those who, like Marxists and modern-day militarists, believe that history should be about great conflicts, and winners and losers. Why? Because the merchant class views history in a more mundane way: as a series of small steps by which people are provided the goods and services they need to overcome the great economic problem of scarcity.

Now, it's true that idealists from the ancient world to our own time have envisioned a world of peace and plenty, but it wasn't until the high middle ages that intellectuals began to explore the economic realm as a suitable means. Economic science sought to come to terms with man's nature as it is, and not as it might be as remade through politics. Once the investigations began, it led to the great liberal/capitalist movement of the following centuries, in which the emphasis shifted from utopian speculation to logical thinking about institutions such as ownership, commerce, and investment.

The institutions examined by the new science of economics are based on the idea of exchange toward mutual benefit, exchange rooted in cooperation instead of compulsion, peace instead of conflict. The idea of mutually beneficial exchange carries with it the potential for vast increases in the standard of living, and for providing a means by which people can channel competing values into profitable undertakings. The result is the free-market economy.

It is a simple idea, one that is immediately clear to the mind not mired in ideological dreams of a society managed from the top down. The market itself has always been with us as the source of civilization, but it took economists to provide the explanation concerning why. The result was the flowering of economic science that continued through the centuries?the discipline that works out the full implications of the meaning of exchange in a world of scarcity.

Both the market and what we call 'capitalism' emerged as a result of human action, not human design, from the bottom up spontaneous organization of individuals based on voluntary exchange, and have provided the basis for prosperity for the world in general, and the west in particular.

We should be extremely wary of intervening in institutions that evolved specifically due to voluntary association. People are rightfully sceptical when someone speaks of radically engineering the environment- it is interesting to me that economic interventionists are often people who readily admit the great complexity in the 'undesigned' natural world, and would never presume to be as arrogant with ecosystems as they are with economies. And human societies and western, developed economies are at least as complex as ecosystems...

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