For much of human history, merchants, traders, and bankers were regarded in low esteem. They were necessary evils, but still evil. Merchants, bankers, and traders were seen as money-grubbing profiteers, only caring about the next penny. As such, most of the brightest and best were shunned away from these professions, opting (to the extent they could) for law or education. Even being a poor farmer was better than being a merchant.
But all that changed starting in the late 1700’s. The “bourgeois values,” to use the term coined by Deidre McCloskey, became honorable. Thinkers and moral philosophers like Adam Smith promoted the good merchants, traders, and bankers do, and the professions started to attract more and more people. Consequently, human standards of living, which had been largely stagnant for nearly two thousand years. Between 0 AD and 1800 AD, standards of living (as judged by GDP per capita) rose by approximately 40%, an average growth rate of 0.02% per year. Between 1800 and 2016, it grew approximately 757%, an average growth rate of 3.5% per year.
Why was the acceptance of bourgeois values necessary to create this prosperity? Perhaps it is because merchants, perhaps more than any other group, earn their keep in service to his fellow man. To sell a good, the merchant must provide a good or service the other person wants, and s/he must be consistent at providing it. The merchant who can best serve these needs becomes wealthy; the one that doesn’t will fail. The woman who has her store open on Christmas Day so that a desperate parent can get food or diapers for their baby is doing a great service to her fellow man. The man who runs the grocer and works long hours so that folks have a place to get food on their way home from work is doing a great service for his fellow man. The foreigner who invents a new method of distribution so that he can bring goods to the market cheaper is doing a great service to his fellow man. The woman who loans funds to a young couple so they can buy a home and start a new life together is doing a great service to her fellow man. The “bourgeois revolution” helped bring these attitudes to the forefront, and launched mankind into a Golden Age.
I love markets and celebrate them as a moral good because of how they operate: by rewarding someone for serving his fellow man, and making the reward proportional to how good of a job they do. Of course, the system is not perfect. There are those who get ahead by cheating. But by creating the incentive system and supplementing it with just rewards (in a Christian sense, creating the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth), markets have done far more to make mankind better off in the past 300 years than previous millennia reliant on the whims of princes and priests.
Markets truly are a force for good.