I woke up this morning thinking about the guy from whom we used to buy firewood. The first time he delivered a load of wood, he volunteered the unusual idea that unisex bathrooms were a gay conspiracy to turn us all into homosexuals and that the government was helping "them" to do this.
I remember my husband and me discussing whether or not to continue a business relationship with him. It wasn't just that he seemed a bit of a loon, it was also the implied prejudice against gays. The prejudice against the government was so ubiquitous at the time and where we lived that we hardly noticed it. "Should we give the guy our business?" we asked ourselves. "His ideas are so unusual and he seems to hold some values that are at odds with ours."
In the end, our decision to continue a business relationship with him was motivated by two things: 1) the wood was dry, good quality hardwood, delivered on time, at a reasonable price, and it fit our small fireplace and 2) we weren't buying political philosophy from him, we were buying firewood. What can I say? I'm an economist and a child of the merchant class. Business is business.
That's the beauty of the market. Two individuals with deep and abiding differences in worldview can find common cause in commercial exchange. For 10 years, we enjoyed dry, high quality hardwood delivered on time and at a very reasonable price compared to prevailing quality-adjusted market prices. Mind you, he wasn't ever going to be a viable candidate for "friend" or "suitable marriage partner for the nieces," but that's not what we were in the firewood market for.
There was an additional cost, however. Whichever one of us helped him unload and stack the wood had to listen to some very unusual ideas about the government. This was during the GW Bush administration. Frankly, he didn't like GWB any better than he liked the Clinton administration. It didn't seem to be left-right, so much as anti-guvmint. The fact that one political party's platform better aligned with some of his unusual ideas about gays and guvmint were what seemed to place him on the right.
The last time we bought firewood from him was right after Mr. Obama was elected president. The conversation that day was more alarming than others had been. Whatever his reservations about government, even that of GWB, they had somehow now become magnified. For the first time in 10 years of firewood deliveries, we heard racism creep into his "interesting" ideas.
My husband helped him unload wood that day. I remember when he came back into the house, he said, "You know, Maxine, it's good we're moving, because if we weren't, I think we'd have to find another firewood supplier. I think he's crossed the threshold from "unusual ideas" to "possibly dangerous."
That's the other beauty of markets with many competitors. If you really believe that someone with whom you have a commercial exchange relationship has ventured into ideological territory that undermines the ideas and institutions you hold dear, the very institutions that support that commercial exchange, or if you believe that same someone threatens the freedoms of all groups by threatening the freedoms of some groups, you can do business with someone else.
And so we would have, had we not moved away.
I'm not sure why I'm telling you this story. Maybe because it's a story about how people with very different ideas can be brought together peaceably by commercial exchange, a mere desire to truck and barter with each other, giving value and getting value. Its a story about how they can tolerate someone with ideas that are quite at odds with their own because the market has provided them with neutral ground where they can meet, exchange, and part, better off for the transaction.
But it's also a story about how, at some point, something other than gaining and getting may also matter. When one party to the exchange promotes ideas that could undermine the social fabric that makes the exchange possible, is it time to step back and ask ourselves: what are we trading and bartering here? If one party to the exchange promotes ideas that could undermine the institutions and tolerance and moral fabric that make markets and democracy possible, should we be more willing to take our business elsewhere, and sooner?
Unfortunately, it can work both ways. That is exactly how markets, and with them civil rights, were undermined in the deep South. Merchants who supported civil rights or who served blacks were boycotted or worse. The "markets" reflected the prevailing moral or immoral sentiments.
I don't want to live in a world where we choose who we do business with based on their politics or beliefs or who their customers are or aren't. That seems too much like choosing them based on race or religion or who they're related to. Business is business. I've always thought of it as the great leveler. If someone delivers a high-quality product at a competitive price with good customer service, that should be sufficient to gain my business.
But today I find myself thinking about the firewood guy. Maybe business isn't always just business.