This article was excerpted from Samuel Gregg's The Commercial Society: Foundations and Challenges in a Global Age, a new book published by Lexington Books.
Commercial society's impact upon poverty is not simply a result of the unintended consequences of market exchange. It owes much to commercial society's particular moral foundations. By moral foundations, we mean particular values and habits of action indispensable for the workings of commercial society. What follows is an attempt to describe commercial society's basic moral foundations. Taken together, these habits and values do not suffice for a society that wishes to merit the title humane or civilized. Nor are they exclusive to commercial society. Trust and peace, for instance, can exist in a range of social orders. The values identified below should therefore be understood as distinctly pronounced in commercial society, while their absence compromises a society's capacity to be recognized as commercial in character and reality.
A key freedom associated with the emergence of commercial society and the undermining of legal and social obstacles to such a society is that of entrepreneurship. Private initiative rarely occurs unless considerable incentives exist to encourage people to exercise it. At the same time private initiative is closely associated with another habit of action essential for commercial society – creativity. Marx was aware of this connection:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, that is to say productive conditions, and thus all social conditions. Preservation intact of the old mode of production, by contrast, was the first precondition for all earlier industrial classes. The ongoing revolution in production, the uninterrupted shaking of all social conditions, the perpetual uncertainty and motion characterize the epoch of the bourgeoisie in contrast to all others.
Man, it seems, is designed in such a way that his very capacity for survival depends upon his unique ability to create new objects, as well as to discover how to create and use things already in existence in faster, more efficient, and cost-effective ways, which can be further transformed through the further application of man's creative insight. The created world, it seems, is full of potentialities to be actualized by human reason and insight. Thus, while the natural world can produce much food of its own accord, there is tremendous scope for humans to accelerate the growth, augment the amount, and transform the character of man's material sustenance. The sources of wealth and economic growth in commercial society depend far less upon the possession of natural resources and much more upon human insight and creativity.
Creativity is not a morally neutral activity. We can certainly question the worth and prudence of creating any number of substances, objects and organizations. The fact that man has used his mind to discover new, more effective means of destroying his fellow human beings does not acquire moral redemption by virtue of the creative insights that allowed such things to be produced. The moral worth of creativity is rather demonstrated by reflection upon its opposite – passiveness and excessive dependency. It concerns the attitude of being unwilling to look beyond one's present circumstances or even consider whether change might be necessary. In some cases, passivity can reflect an instinctive opposition to change for sake of resistance to change or an excessive and unthinking dependence upon the past. The resilience of commercial society does, as we will see, require a high degree of trust in, and even dependence upon, long-established institutions and conventions with which we tamper at our peril. But quietism results in the slow suffocation of the human ability to foresee new possibilities, including those of a commercial character.
Creativity of thought, action, and association literally transforms humanity's outlook from one of a static or cyclical view of history and life to a vision of the world as open to transformation and uplifting through human endeavor. It permits people to break out of set and sometimes stagnant patterns of life. Creativity allows people to imagine a future different from the present in which they exist – a future in which their well-being and that of their children in terms of tangibles such as material wealth and education have all multiplied. This creativity is not limited to one choice or one action on the part of one individual. It invariably involves building upon the creative choices and insights of people living now and those long dead. This collaborative creativity can occur informally or in a more structured environment such as a business. Many such organizations even possess entire departments devoted exclusively to creative purposes. The creativity that flourishes in commercial society is thus rarely that of an isolated individual. It is invariably social in character.