If I were a business owner, must I sell to you? If you answer yes, you must balance that requirement with your obligation to buy from me.
All trade is bilateral. Well, to be more exact, and since we live in a country where a nebby1 uncle named Sam interferes in many trades, it is better to state that all free trade is bilateral.
In a modern economy, money facilitates exchange. So, typically, a good or service is exchanged for money, with both sides of the trade benefiting a priori. Of course, one side could end up regretting the trade, but such is life when passions are fleeting.
To better understand the ethics involved in trade, and to address the proposition that opened this article, let’s consider an actual market—a local farmers market—to represent the mental construct termed the free market.
On the sidewalk surrounding a small town square, various farmers set up inward-facing stalls to sell that which they reap. In some cases, stalls offer unique goods. But, for the most part, each stall has the same fresh fruits and vegetables, along with similarly sweet smelling baked goods. Milling about in the center of the square are customers, moving from stall to stall, looking for that which will satisfy their wants and desires.
Farmers size up customers and customers size up farmers. And they all size up each other, with farmers sizing up farmers and customers sizing up customers. Ears strain to hear the deals being done. And any bargain offered to one will likely be requested by those next in line or in the vicinity.
Behaviors, appearances, tones, etc., are assessed by everyone on both sides of the stalls. The farmer who is too gruff with a low bidder will likely find the line in front of his stall become shorter. And the disheveled farmer whose stall is disorganized and dirty will likely see few customers willing to pay a market price.
In addition, customers who come across as savvy and smart will likely realize a better bargain than those appearing new and naive.
According to the current view, once the farmer opens his stall, he is required to sell to whoever approaches and offers the market price. To even suggest this may be wrong is to invite the wrath and invectives from feigned intellectuals and their sycophants.
Regardless, let’s take a look.
Suppose a farmer from Pittsburgh despises folks from Cleveland—he is, in the vernacular of the day, a Cleveland hater. Yet, he must serve folks seemingly resplendent in their Browns attire, no exceptions. However, should the farmer billboard the Steelers logo on his chest, any Browns fan spiteful of his teamâ€™s losing record could opt for the next stall—he is not forced to buy from him who is forced to sell.
Seeing a little imbalance here?
In a bilateral exchange, even those where money sits on one side of the deal, there is no ethical difference between the two participants. To make a claim that the farmer must sell since, if he does not sell, the customer goes wanting for goods is no different from making the opposite claim: the customer must buy since, if he does not buy, the farmer goes wanting for cash, as well as all that cash provides (the ability to pay utility bills, the doctor, the dentist, etc.).
Since farmers at the market are few relative to customers, the envy of the majority holds sway. The man with the harvest, no matter how hard he hoed and hauled, is deemed a public good and subject to the vagaries of society. This is enforced by Uncle Sam, whose insistence in intervening collapses the construct of a free market into coerced trilateral exchanges2, with coercion in one direction only.
To support coercion with respect to the seller without demanding the same from the buyer is to advocate for a system that thieves the property and labor of one to benefit another. However, to support completely coerced exchanges is to advocate for total state slavery.
Since the balancing of coercion violates the ethics of self and property, as does coercion in one direction, the only valid solution is for the nebby uncle to mind its own business and allow Steelers fans and Browns fans to associate and trade, or not associate and not trade, as desired.
Jim Fedako (send him email) is a business analyst and homeschooling father of seven who lives in Lewis Center, OH.
1For those from the Pittsburgh area, nebby requires no definition. For the remainder, you can determine the definition in context or head over to Pittsburgh for lunch at Primanti’s and ask the counter guy to provide it.
2Where the state is the third party in the exchange.