Legend has it, that when the Persians were conquering Asia Minor, the great king Cyrus was warned that the Greeks were dangerous adversaries. He supposedly laughed this off as the Greeks, in his mind, were a people who lied to one another. A people who could not tell truth from fiction could not possibly stand up to the Persians. What he was referring to was the Greek market place, where commerce was conducted between buyers and sellers haggling over price. This was an alien concept to the Persians.
Like most anecdotes handed down to us, especially those from the long ago past, this is probably apocryphal. Herodotus, the main source of information about the Persians, was as much a story teller as a historian. Even so, we know the Persians considered lying and owing a debt to be the worst sins. Lying could get a person executed, if the person being told the lie was of high status. It was not that lying to a person of high status was particularly wrong. It was that the high status person had the power to punish the liar.
Naturally, the Persians would have looked at the Greek culture as deeply immoral, as it was based on dishonesty. After all, persuasion is a form of lying and democracy is about persuading people, not arriving at the truth. The marketplace is where buyers and sellers seek advantage over one another. The seller exaggerates the quality of his goods and the buyer tries to play sellers off one another to get a bargain. Not only is there no advantage to truth telling, there can be great rewards for skillful dishonesty.
Whether or not Cyrus said what is claimed is unimportant. It is an important insight into a fundamental flaw of both democracy and the marketplace. Public debate is not a search for truth, but a search for a way to convince a majority of the public. Similarly, the market is not a search for the true value of a good or service. It is the search for the bigger share of a financial transaction. Inevitably such systems reward the people who are good at gaining the trust of their fellow citizens in order to deceive them.
This truth about the marketplace, be it the political market or the market for goods and services, is not an argument against it. Any form of human organization is going to involve trade-offs. Further, men are not angels, so all social systems will be susceptible to corruption. Knowing this about democracy, for example, is why the Founders tried to construct a system that would restrain democracy. Similarly, the economic reforms a century ago were intended to put limits on the marketplace.
In the present age, this institutional dishonesty is most obvious in politics, where the parties are now completely dominated by sociopaths. A system that is supposedly built on respect for the public will is now run by people who hold the people in contempt. They take pleasure in lying to their most important voters. It’s not just the Right, the Left does the same thing, only with more skill. Elizabeth Warren will run as an opponent of big business, but in office she will be entirely beholden to global corporate interests.
What compounds this problem in democracy is the people are conditioned to think it is normal and healthy to be ruled by sociopaths. Politics becomes the inverse of what people expect in their daily lives. Among your friends and acquaintances, you expect a high degree of trust and honestly. In politics, you have been trained to demand the most extreme forms of lying. If a politician makes the mistake of uttering the truth, he is hooted off the stage. Democracy makes the people an enemy of themselves.
Something similar happens in the marketplace. It used to be that the cost and profit of an item was reflected in the price. When costs went up, the price went up. If the seller was a bit greedy, the price would reflect it. Today, when costs go up, the seller quietly shrinks the product. The greed of the seller results in larger packages that disguise the shrinking product inside. It used to be a pint was a pound the world around, but now it is closer to thirteen ounces, but it depends up the seller and time of day.
As with democracy, the real crime with these deceptive practices in the marketplace is it normalizes dishonestly. Whenever the topic of “shrinkflation” comes up, people have been trained to laugh at the person questioning it. “That’s just clever marketing” we are told, as if it is naive and childlike to question systemic fraud. The result is the virtues of the marketplace get turned on their head. Instead of competition producing the best product, competition produces the most accomplished liars.
None of this is an argument against self-government or commerce. It’s that free markets and self-government are not ends in themselves, but a means to an end. The point of human organization is the spiritual and material prosperity of the people. The form of government and the economic arrangements are about the welfare of the people, not some theoretical ideal. If defending democracy means defending rule by sociopath, maybe democracy, at least the extreme form, is not a great idea.
Similarly, if free markets result in the people being terrorized by global technology giants, maybe a little less economic freedom, in order to reign in these companies, is a good trade-off. After all, the point of economic order is not to achieve private tyranny in defense of a theory. The point of economic order is to benefit the people, collectively and individually. If it requires government regulation to have prices on goods and services that indicate the real value of the items, that’s not a terrible trade-off.
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