A Black Friday Post, Of Sorts

I love markets. Not those abstract markets that I used to wax poetic about as an economics teacher, but the real thing. Loud, messy places full of people and stuff; people interacting and stuff changing hands.

When I think over trips I’ve taken and try to pick out the best experiences I’ve had as a traveler, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that most of them involve walking around markets: Pike Place Market, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Santa Fe Indian Market at the Plaza, Boston Market...

(just kidding about that last one)

And not just the iconic ones. Some of my most vivid memories of yearly childhood trips to the Grand Canyon are of gift shops on the Rim. Who knows how many hours I’ve spent idly walking around malls? Rarely during these market-wandering experiences do I actually buy anything. I just intensely enjoy being surrounded by hustle and bustle, taking in the mélange of merchandise. Maybe this had something to do with my decision to major in economics. Maybe my love of the hubbub and diversity filling any real market got me through the detached, abstract nature of “the dismal science.” My love of commercial places certainly makes me an easy-to-please tourist; heck, I even like those last-chance-for-a-cheesy-souvenir airport shops.

But apart from these obvious benefits, my love of markets worries me. On a shallow level, I suppose I’ve just admitted to a love of “shopping” – not going to the store with the “hunter” mentality of “get in, get the stuff, and get out,” as we are told contemporary American men uniformly have, but instead, with the “gatherer” mentality of meandering, stopping to smell the roses, with which so many women exacerbate their husbands.

On a deeper level, though, I wonder what my love of markets says about my soul. Am I a democratic man? Surely Plato’s aristocratic and timocratic men would have no use for the inane commotion of the market-place; they would have better things to contemplate and to do. The oligarch, to be sure, would love markets – but in a very different way, and for different reasons. The oligarch loves the abstraction behind markets – exchange motivated by mutual self-interest – because its serves his interests. A market, any market, is simply a means to his chief end, money. I love actual markets for their own sake, or for a reason very close to that: because they are by their nature pretty and diverse and interesting.

If my love of variety and hubbub is a sign of my democratic nature, then at least this much can be said for it: it’s a step better than the tyrannical nature of the Black Friday hordes, so intent on satisfying their single desire (whether the ruling head of the hydra happens right now to be a bigger TV, a new gaming system, or a car) that they will trample each other just to get through the door first. Those tyrannical souls, single-mindedly chasing deals, are so bent on momentary satisfaction that they become sterile, like the drones Socrates describes in a budding tyranny. These ruthlessly self-serving consumers, and their oligarch collaborators, have so enshrined their desire for deals that they have re-dedicated all our national holidays to it. When I think of Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day, my first thought is not of sacrifice, devotion, or freedom. Instead, over-the-top commercials barge their way into my imagination, replete with giant gorillas, flames, and misappropriated stars and stripes.

Following Plato, I wonder about this further possibility: could my democratic love of markets, like the democratic souls in the Republic, though base in itself, be somehow the most fertile ground for the development of higher things?

Autobiographically, at least, this seems to be true. My love of actual commerce led me to study, and even enjoy, the theory of commerce. My study of economics, in turn, led me to realize that economics is a useful but severely incomplete science; this led me to the study of, and love for, politics –as Aristotle tells us, the science that aims at the highest good.

Similarly, a democratic soul’s appreciation of diverse, shallow things, precisely because it is wishy-washy and uncommitted, leaves open the possibility of the democratic man realizing that those shadows of reality will never satisfy his desire for the truth of reality itself. Glaucon followed Socrates to the Piraeus to see exciting festival celebrations. But that didn’t satisfy him, and his willingness to try new things led him to follow Socrates not just to the Piraeus, but into the realm of philosophy.

John Thorpe