People understand some occupations far more easily than others. A farmer planting seeds or harvesting a crop is easily understood. A contractor building a house is easily understood. We easily understand a miner digging coal underground then bringing it up to the surface and a railway worker laying track, as we also understand a mechanic repairing a car. We get a doctor, a dentist and a factory worker. We even understand why the football hero or movie star make the big bucks. We know what all these people do in order to get paid. We understand the value they add.
In other words, we easily grasp Karl Marx’s labor theory of value. He insisted that anything involving labor is valuable and the value of a good or service is proportional to the labor involved. We might challenge Comrade Karl by pointing out that labor doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. The dentist who labored for only half an hour to end my dreadful toothache gets paid far more than the coal miner is paid for half an hour of his labor. But to give him credit, Marx would respond by explaining that the dentist labored long and hard in advance of my visit by acquiring the knowledge and skills to repair my tooth. Nonetheless, it isn’t hard to refute Marx’s views on value.
Almost everyone knows that the value of something is set exclusively by what other people (the market) are willing to pay for it. If two stores offer me two identical chairs, but one was built by a carpenter using only hand tools over the course of two weeks of labor while the other was built quickly and efficiently with power tools, Marx would have to say the first is worth more. In reality, we’d pay the same for each chair; we really aren’t interested in how much labor went into the job. Everyone knows that a new Ford truck loses much of its value as soon as its new owner drives it home. This is not decreed by some mysterious deity of Detroit. Rather it is the recognition that should the new owner wish to sell his truck, nobody will pay him anything close to what he just paid.
Still, in his day, Marx persuaded many people. His disciples, including one Joseph Stalin who was only five when his economics guru died, bought into what became known as Marxism. But there was a problem.
One of the occupations that completely contradicts Marxism is commerce. Even a child watching a blacksmith or a carpenter grasps what they are doing. Not so with commerce. The child watches a sales professional sitting at his desk making dozens of phone calls. Some are to his suppliers to inquire about product availability and prices while others are to possible customers who might be in need of those products. Then he calls the suppliers again to deliver orders and shipping instructions. Not surprisingly, the child is clueless about what the business professional was doing and why he gets paid.
Should the patient parents of this precocious progeny explain just what the sales professional was doing, the little person might reasonably ask, “Why can’t the customer bypass this trader and simply purchase whatever it was he wanted directly from the supplier?” Doing so would enable him to avoid the markup inevitably added on by the sales professional who manifestly added no labor at all to the product.
Not surprisingly, this was just how Joseph Stalin saw it and along with his noxious pal, Lenin, proceeded to starve, persecute, and murder all the small businesspeople in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. After all, these ‘vermin-like Kulaks’ did nothing but add cost to wheat, dairy products, and meat while adding no value at all. At least one million, probably many more perished miserably. As a result, without these crucial cogs in the machinery of daily living, the Soviet Union experienced many deadly famines. That really isn’t the right term because Soviet soil always produced food. It was just that nobody who knew how to bring it to towns and villages was still alive.
Seeing people engaged in commerce and trade as horrible human beings started long before Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. In fact, back in the 5th century, early Church theologian St. Augustine stated succinctly, “It is impossible for one to gain if another does not lose.” In other words, if there is someone between the farmer and your dining table and he is gaining, then you must be losing. Trade and commerce merely prey on hard-working people. Using this same thinking, rioters in American cities from back in 1968 up to the present, tend to destroy the small stores and businesses that bring goods and services into their neighborhoods. Since those storeowners are making a living, clearly their customers must be losing.
Martin Luther, in his book On the Jews and Their Lies recommended placing axes, shovels, and hoes into the hands of Jews and making them earn an honest living through their labor on farms like everyone else. Luther loathed trade and commerce. Going back many years earlier, even the ancient Greeks despised commerce. Plato saw the merchant as a loathsome person and argued that no citizen should ever engage in commerce. It was suitable only for second class people. Aristotle also saw anything to do with trade as vulgar and utterly lacking in virtue.
In the meantime, while Athens was demonizing the role of the business professional, Jerusalem was elevating it. Putting his own money at risk by purchasing wheat, meat, and cheese from various farmers and bringing it into the town market so housewives could buy all their household needs from one single local supplier, was taught to be a good deed. About a third of all the laws in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, are predicated upon a market place and the services of a vast class of merchants and traders.
Throughout the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical authority kept Jews out of farming and out of most professions and crafts. This left them little alternative but to engage in banking and trade which their own religious culture venerated in any case. Not surprisingly, as merchants who made a profit, their gain was usually seen as everyone else’s loss. Hatred of Jews became intense and ubiquitous.
Only once a Judeo-Christian world-view developed, chiefly in Protestant countries and later in the United States, did economic vitality appear and was productivity and trade viewed favorably. It was no accident that friendliness towards and tolerance of Jews invariably went hand in hand with developing economies. Countries began to view Jewish business professionals as the economic assets they are. Tragically, in those cultural zones in which Biblical commitment has faded, such as universities and left-wing politics, we again see mistrust of the merchant, suspicion of free market capitalism and hatred of the Jew and his land, Israel. While this isn’t, perhaps, even one of the most important reasons Jews are hated, it is one of the least considered.
Many past Thought Tools have laid out the Torah view of money. Understanding the morality of the marketplace is a key tool in being financially successful. This week, you can get Thought Tools Volume 2 with 50 timeless messages on topics such as money, marriage, Hebrew and much more at its lowest price ever. Check it out now.
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