A Tribute to Trade
[This column is dedicated to the memory of the friends and associates of the Mises Institute who died at the hands of the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. It was originally published on September 11, 2001.]
The sight of New York City's twin World Trade Center towers falling to the ground, the result of an act of deliberate aggression, seems to symbolize two points that seem entirely forgotten today: the magnificent contribution that commerce makes to civilization, and just how vulnerable it is to its enemies. If the enemies of capitalist commerce are hell-bent on the destruction of the source of wealth, there are few means available to prevent it.
From the two towers soaring 1,300 feet above the city, a person on the 110th floor enjoyed a panoramic view stretching 55 miles: a broad vision of human civilization. Much more important for the flowering of civilization is what went on there: entrepreneurship, creativity, exchange, service, all of it peaceful, all of it to the benefit of mankind.
What kind of service? Germany's Deutsche Bank occupied four floors. The financial firm of Morgan Stanley took 20 floors, and, at the time of the explosion, the firm was hosting a meeting for the 400 members of the National Association of Business Economists. Fred Alger Management, a training ground for young traders and stock analysts, occupied the 93rd floor. Bond dealers for Cantor Fitzgerald took up floors 101 through 105. MassMutual was on the 33rd floor.
Fiduciary Trust, a wonderful money-management company, employed 500 people who worked on five floors at very top of the building. Other companies there included Network Plus, Harris Beach & Wilcox, Oppenheimerfunds, Bank of America, Kemper Insurance, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley Dean Whitter, Credit Suisse First Boston, and Sun Microsystems.
Here were the brokers who invest our savings, trying their best to channel resources to their most profitable uses. Here were insurance companies, which provide the valuable service of securing our lives and property against accidents. Here were many retailers, who risk their own livelihoods to provide us with goods and services we as consumers desire. Here were lenders, lawyers, agents, and architects whose contributions are so essential to our daily lives.
Some of us knew men and women who are now dead. But most of them will remain anonymous to us. Whether we knew them or not, they were our benefactors nonetheless, because in the commercial society, the actions of entrepreneurs benefit everyone, in mostly imperceptible ways. They all contribute to the stock of capital on which prosperity itself is based. They work daily to coordinate the use of resources to eliminate waste and inefficiency, and make products and services available that improve our everyday lives.
Think especially of the remarkable people in that place who facilitated international trade. They daily accomplished the seemingly impossible. Faced with a world of more than 200 countries, and hundreds more languages and dialects, with as many currencies and legal regimes, and thousands of local cultural differences, and billions of consumers, they found ways to make peaceful exchange possible. They looked for and seized on every opportunity that presented itself to enable human cooperation.
No government has been able to accomplish anything this remarkable. It is a miracle made possible by commerce, and by those who undertake the burden of making it happen.
We often hear platitudes about the brotherhood of man. But you don't see it at the United Nations or at the summits of governments. There you see conflicts, resolved usually by the use of other people's money taken by force. But at the World Trade Center, the brotherhood of man was an everyday affair.
It didn't matter if you were a small rug merchant in Nepal, a fisherman off the Chinese coast, or a machine manufacturer in the American Midwest; the people who worked here put you in contact with others who valued what you did and what you could give to others. Consent and choice, not conflict and coercion, were at the core of everything. Their watchword was contract, not hegemony.
True, the objective of all these merchants and traders may have been their own personal betterment, but the effect of their work was to serve not just themselves but everyone else as well. Because the beneficial effects of trade are not just local but national, and not just national but international, the inhabitants of these buildings were in many ways the benefactors of all of us personally. The blessings we experienced from their work came to us every time we used a credit card, withdrew money from the bank, bought from a chain store, or ordered something online.
In short, these people were producers. Frédéric Bastiat said of them, they are the people who
create out of nothing the satisfactions that sustain and beautify life, so that an individual or a people is enabled to multiply these satisfactions indefinitely without inflicting privation of any kind on other men or other peoples.
Yes, they earned profits, but for the most part their work went unrewarded. It was certainly unappreciated in the culture at large. They are not called public servants. They are not praised for their sacrifices to the common good. Popular culture treated these "money centers" as sources of greed and corruption. We are told that these people are the cause of environmental destruction and labor exploitation, that the "globalists" inside the World Trade Center were conspiring not to create but to destroy. Even after all the destruction wrought by socialism, capitalists must still bear the brunt of envy and hatred.
The impulse to hate the entrepreneurial class shows up in myriad ways. We see it when franchise restaurants are bombed, as they frequently are in France. In the United States, the government works to "protect" land from being used by commerce, and increasing numbers of our laws are built on the presumption that the business class is out to get us, not serve us. The business pages more often report on the villainy, rather then the victories, of enterprise. Or take a look at the typical college bookstore, where students are still required to read Marx and the Marxians rather than Mises and the Misesians.
All the enemies of capitalism act as if its elimination would have no ill consequences for our lives. In the classroom, on television, at the movies, we are continually presented a picture of what a perfect world of bliss we would enjoy if we could just get rid of those who make a living through owning, speculating, and amassing wealth.
For hundreds of years, in fact, the intellectual classes have demanded the expropriation and even the extermination of capitalistic expropriators. Since ancient times, the merchant and his trade have been considered ignoble. In fact, their absence would reduce us to barbarism and utter poverty. Even now, the destruction of the property and people at the once-mighty towers of the world has already impoverished us in more ways than we will ever know.
Those who understand economics and celebrate the creative power of commerce understand this higher truth, which is why we defend the market economy at every opportunity. That is why we seek to eliminate the barriers that governments and anticapitalists have erected against the businessmen's freedom. We see them as the defenders of civilization, and so we seek to guard their interests in every way we know how.
We mourn the lost lives of those who worked in the World Trade Center towers, which are no more. We mourn their lost vocations. We owe it to them to appreciate anew their contribution to society.
As Mises wrote,
No one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.