For today’s Scholarship Roundup post, I’m going to exercise the host’s privilege and post a new essay of my own, “Markets and Morals: The Limits of Doux Commerce.” The essay, which I wrote for a symposium on Nate Oman’s book, The Dignity of Commerce, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the William and Mary Business Law Review. The doux commerce thesis holds that the market tends to promote the liberal virtues of pluralism and religious tolerance. Following Burke, I argue that the thesis gets things backwards. This was a fun essay to write, as it allowed me to go back and re-read the actual Enlightenment thinkers, as well as Alan Bloom’s great essay on The Merchant of Venice, which play figures prominently in Nate’s book.
Here’s the abstract:
In this essay for a symposium on Professor Nathan Oman’s new book, “The Dignity of Commerce,” I do three things. First, I describe what I take to be the central message of the book, namely, that markets promote liberal values of tolerance, pluralism, and cooperation among rival, even hostile groups. Second, I show how Oman’s argument draws from a line of political and economic thought that dates to the Enlightenment, the so-called “doux commerce” thesis of thinkers like Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Finally, I discuss what I consider the most penetrating criticism of that thesis, Edmund Burke’s critique from tradition, which suggests we should be careful attributing too much to markets’ ability to promote liberal pluralism. According to Burke, it is the Western tradition, including religion, and not commerce, which creates the tolerant, pluralist marketplace of the doux commerce thesis. That Burke was correct is suggested by several historical examples and by contemporary events in the United States and across the globe. That is not to say that Oman is entirely wrong about the potential political benefits of the market, only that we should be careful not to overstate them.