The centrality of shopping is seen in the clash between those who cherish "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and the "life, liberty, and property" crowd. Indeed, the sanctification of property "rights" by the latter group has contributed much to human misery. It is difficult to make an ethical case for those whose worship of property has led them to challenge, for example, the very idea of environmental protection laws.
Such private property extremists dwell in a fantasyland of the rugged farmer living in isolation, on his autonomous homestead, out in the wilderness, where his actions affect no other person; except, perhaps, in the case of Jefferson and his slaves. But here on Earth, a more powerful case could be made that this solitary farmer is not so solitary, that his fertilizer washes off his field into the stream from which, many miles away, others must drink; that his produce is brought to market on roads others must pay for, in a truck that spews fumes others must breathe. He learned to do his crop calculations at a public school; he follows crop prices on-line, using the Internet created by government researchers.
It is environmentalism that provides a counterargument to the worship of private property, and it is a morally superior argument, not because it proposes a more austere lifestyle, but because it recognizes that we each live among others, affecting and being affected by one another. While honorable people may differ about any particular policy, this much seems unarguable. Those private property fanatics (to whom the current Supreme Court is increasingly and distressingly sympathetic) act unethically, not just because they espouse greed and relentless self-interest, but because their assertion of autonomy is intellectually dishonest. That is to say, that there can be no meaningful ethics that does not consider human beings as social creatures.
It must also be noted that profit is not the loftiest goal to which we can aspire, nor are commercial exchanges the most deeply satisfying human encounters. Much as one enjoys the mall, there is something to be said for the library or the school, the theater or the park, or indeed for the bedroom. Even in nineteenth-century London, that proud capital of a mercantile empire, the English dreamed of traveling to Italy; one reads so few novels where a woman from Tuscany yearns to live nearer the London Stock Exchange. A society where all human interaction is a form of commerce is hardly a society at all. In other words, if I ran my life the way I ran my business, it would barely be a life at all. Although I'd give more of my friend's coffee mugs with my picture on them. And I'd have a jaunty and memorable catchphrase to sum myself up. And my name would be written in an instantly recognizable typeface.
This is not to decry commerce, but to assign it a more reasonable place in human affairs. Johnson himself was not averse to commerce, which he knew improves the condition of humanity in manifold ways. After the death of his friend Henry Thrale, Johnson pitched in enthusiastically to help Thrale's widow sell her husband's brewery, showing an understanding of the buyer-seller relationship that presaged modern advertising's awareness that it must sell the sizzle, not the steak:
. . . When the sale of Thrale's brewery was going forward, Johnson appeared bustling about with an ink-horn and pen in his button-hole, like an excise-man; and on being asked what he really considered to be the value of the property which was to be disposed of, answered, "We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich, beyond the dreams of avarice."
But Johnson did not let his commercial zeal compromise his integrity, nor did this most sociable of men lose his awareness of himself as a person living among others.
Copyright Randy Cohen. All rights reserved.
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