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Richard Cobden
by [?]

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Emerson defines commerce as carrying things from where they are plentiful to where they are needed. Business is that field of human endeavor which undertakes to supply the materials to humanity that life demands.

The clergy are our spiritual advisers, preparing us for a pleasant and easy place in another world. The lawyers advise us on legal themes– showing us how to obey the law, or else evade it, and they protect us from lawyers. The doctors look after us when disease attacks our bodies–or when we think it does.

We used to talk about “The Three Learned Professions”; if we use the phrase now, it is only in a Pickwickian sense, for we realize that there are at present fifty-seven varieties of learned men.

The greatest and most important of all the professions is that of Commerce, or Business. Medicine and law have their specialties–a dozen each–but business has ten thousand specialties, or divisions.

So important do we now recognize business, or this ministering to the material wants of humanity, that theology has shifted its ground, and within a few years has declared that to eat rightly, dress rightly, and work rightly are the fittest preparation for a life to come.

The best lawyers now are businessmen, and their work is to keep the commercial craft in a safe channel, where it will not split on the rocks of litigation nor founder in the shallows of misunderstanding. Every lawyer will tell you this, “To make money you must satisfy your customers.”

The greatest change in business came with the one-price system.

The old idea was for the seller to get as much as he possibly could for everything he sold. Short weight, short count, and inferiority in quality were considered quite proper and right, and when you bought a dressed turkey from a farmer, if you did not discover the stone inside the turkey when you weighed it and paid for it, there was no redress. The laugh was on you. And moreover a legal maxim–caveat emptor, “Let the buyer beware”–made cheating legally safe.

Dealers in clothing guaranteed neither fit nor quality, and anything you paid for, once wrapped up and in your hands, was yours beyond recall–“Business is business,” was a maxim that covered many sins.

A few hundred years ago business was transacted mostly through fairs and ships, and by pedlers. Your merchant of that time was a peripatetic rogue who reduced prevarication to a system.

The booth gradually evolved into a store, with the methods and customs of the irresponsible keeper intact: the men cheated their neighbors and chuckled in glee until their neighbors cheated them, which, of course, they did. Then they cursed each other, began again, and did it all over. John Quincy Adams tells of a certain deacon who kept a store near Boston, who always added in the year 1775, at the top of the column, as seventeen dollars and seventy-five cents.

The amount of misery, grief, disappointment, shame, distress, woe, suspicion and hate caused by a system which wrapped up one thing when the buyer expected another, and took advantage of his innocence and ignorance as to quality and value, can not be computed in figures. Suffice it to say that duplicity in trade has had to go. The self- preservation of the race demanded honesty, square dealing, one price to all. The change came only after a struggle, and we are not quite sure of the one-price deal yet.

But we have gotten thus far: that the man who cheats in trade is tabu. Honesty as a business asset is fully recognized. If you would succeed in business you can not afford to sell a man something he does not want; neither can you afford to disappoint him in quality, any more than in count. Other things being equal, the merchant who has the most friends will make the most money. Our enemies will not deal with us. To make a sale and acquire an enemy is poor policy. To a pedler or a man who ran a booth at a bazaar or fair, it was “get your money now or never.” Buyer and seller were at war. One transaction and they never met again. The air was full of hate and suspicion, and the savage propensity of physical destruction was refined to a point where hypocrisy and untruth took the place of violence–the buyer was as bad as the seller: if he could buy below cost he boasted of it. To catch a merchant who had to have money was glorious–we smote him hip and thigh! Later, we discovered that being strangers he took us in.