At the Liberty Law site today, I have a review of Nate Oman’s important new book on markets and morals, The Dignity of Commerce. The book is a great contribution to contracts scholarship, thoughtful and beautifully written. Nate and I have a friendly disagreement, though, about the cause-and-effect relationship between markets and morals, so it’s no surprise that I find myself disagreeing with one of the book’s main claims:
Liberals maintain that markets create wealth, promote mutual gain, and unlock talents and resources in individuals and nations. And, they say, markets have political benefits. Since the Enlightenment, liberals have argued that markets promote civic pluralism by making people more reasonable and prudent; less given to political and, especially, religious enthusiasm; and eager to avoid divisive debates about deep commitments.
That markets have these advantages is known as the doux commerce thesis. (That’s doux as in soft, or having a softening effect.) The thesis is most closely associated with the Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire, though David Hume and Adam Smith endorsed it, too. In a very fine new book, The Dignity of Commerce: Markets and the Moral Foundations of Contract Law, contracts scholar Nathan B. Oman advances a version of the theory, updated to take account of current contract doctrine. Oman, a law professor at William and Mary Law School, combines immense learning and sophistication with a lightness of touch that makes his book a pleasure to read.
All of that said, I remain unpersuaded about doux commerce. Edmund Burke had it right, I think. Markets don’t inevitably lead to liberalism. Rather, the liberal tradition itself creates the sort of markets liberals admire.