Markets Aren't about "Using" People. Markets Help People Attain Their Goals.
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A very common rip on market arrangements is that they use people. For instance, I have come across many versions of “love people and use things rather than loving things and using people.” As Paul Heyne expressed the sense of it, “such a system seems somehow to violate our profound moral conviction that nothing is more valuable than individual persons, and that each person ought to be treated as a unique end, never as a means to some further end.”
The irony is that those who love liberty derive their endorsement of market arrangements from the primacy of individuals. As Leonard Read wrote, “An individualist…looks upon society as the upshot, outcome, effect, recapitulation incidental to what is valued above all else, namely, each distinctive individual human being.”
What Do We Mean by “Use”?
So why have “market arrangements use people” criticisms persisted, even though the central defense of such arrangements is that it benefits the individuals involved? In large part, it comes from sloppy misuse of the word “use.”
While there is widespread moral condemnation of “using” people, use has different meanings. Use can mean “utilize or employ,” with no implication of harm to others. That is what we mean when we say someone uses a hammer. It is also what happens when people voluntarily provide their services to advance others’ purposes in markets. In contrast, use can also mean “abuse or harm,” particularly as a result of force or fraud. That is what we mean when we say, “you pretended to care about me, but you were just using me.”
The first meaning is consistent with either imposing no harm on others or benefitting them (as in mutually acceptable market arrangements, which individuals would not otherwise enter into); the second meaning requires that others are harmed. And not clearly distinguishing the different meanings introduces serious confusion.
Some people may be fooled by hearing that, “You use others in markets; using people harms them.” But that is far less likely if you clarify which meaning of “use” you have in mind. “You utilized others’ willingly supplied services, therefore you harmed them” will convince far fewer people. So language misuse, abetted by sloppy thinking, can transform mutual benefits from uncoerced market exchanges into the fantasy of exploitation theory.
Ends and Means, Not Ends or Means
There is another logical problem that arises when we say we should treat people solely as ends in themselves and never as means for our purposes. It is not an “either/or” choice. Those we deal with voluntarily are both ends in themselves and the means by which we advance our ends.
What each of us offers others in voluntary arrangements is means to better advance others’ ends. But to treat goods and services others provide us voluntarily as means to our ends does not demean them as individuals; it is simply inherent in mutual benefit. To miss that distinction and so condemn such arrangements as the unethical use of others comes very close to the self-contradictory assertion that nothing mutually beneficial is allowable. Instead, we should laud rather than lambast a system that can dovetail the often incompatible plans and purposes of multitudes of different individuals, without abusing them or their rights, to expand what can actually be achieved.
Letting Others Pick How to Best Advance Their Ends
Further, when people freely choose their arrangements, we need to notice that doing so respects others as important ends in themselves in a crucial way that is absent when others dictate what is allowable. Under freedom, every individual can choose for themselves how to best use the means they have at their disposal to advance their own ends. To miss the fact that just because we primarily do this indirectly, exchanging our means for the means others control, as when I exchange my labor for your money (i.e., claims on resources), which I then use to advance the ends I choose, is to make a serious analytical error.
Mutually voluntary arrangements are those whose participants each believes best advance their ends without violating others’ similar pursuit of their ends. And what can better advance others’ ends than letting them choose how to use their current means most productively as they see it? As Phillip Wicksteed wrote in The Common Sense of Political Economy, voluntary economic relations ease “the limitations…of their own direct resources…by the very act that brings a corresponding liberation to those with whom they deal…[leaving] no room to bring against it the charge of being intrinsically sordid and degrading.”
How “Using” Others Beats Benevolence in a Complex World
Further, the hypothetical ideal of solely treating people as objects of benevolence rather than utilizing their services through mutually beneficial exchanges is unattainable. As Wicksteed put it, “The limitation of our powers would prevent our taking an equally active interest in every one’s affairs.” In any society larger than an immediate family, we simply cannot know enough to organize relationships based on benevolence. Consider the sheer number of transactions and transactors involved in our economic arrangements. Vast numbers of people are involved for even the simplest products, much less more complex ones. In such circumstances, the alternatives are not coordinating relationships via exchange (another name for persuasion) or via charity, but between coordinating relationships via exchange or coordinating them far less well, if at all, because it exceeds our knowledge and capabilities.
As Paul Heyne encapsulated the issue:
When money prices, rather than concern for each other as persons, coordinate social transactions, social cooperation becomes possible on a more extensive scale. Those who would like to force all social transactions into the personal mode do not realize how much of what they now take for granted would become wholly impossible in the world of their ideals…They are ignoring the incredible complexity of the system of social cooperation by means of which we are fed, clothed, housed, warmed, healed, transported, comforted, entertained, challenged, inspired, educated and generally served.
Claims that market arrangements involve the unethical “using” of others are of lengthy pedigree. But they are also of questionable merit.
They rhetorically transform the utilization of other individuals’ services in ways that benefit all parties involved into “using” others to their imagined detriment. They treat the issue as a choice between treating others as means or as ends, when people are ends in themselves and the providers of the means for others to best advance their ends. Honoring others as ends in themselves also means letting them choose which use of their means can best achieve their ends. And if we were to reject letting individuals utilize their services for others voluntarily, as they see fit, it would leave us with only benevolence as the basis of all our relationships. In a complex world, however, that would not advance the good we do for one another; it would destroy many of the forms of social cooperation that voluntary arrangements have produced so dependably that we rely on them daily.
Consequently, careful thinking, not cowed or manipulated by misleading arguments, should lead us to reject the “market arrangements use people” criticism. If we accept the premise that individuals and their development are our ultimate ends, the voluntary arrangements they evolve are, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out, among society’s greatest creations, not its nemesis.