Loyalty in the Modern World

Article excerpt

WHAT IS LOYALTY? What is its quintessence, its fundamental nature? What rank does loyalty have in the realm of values and virtues? How important is it to a life well lived? The question of loyalty is of considerable interest, because contemplating it can give us a much clearer view of our own era, the modern age, but also of the pre-modern age--and thus of the differences and similarities between the pre-moderns (some would say, the "ancients") and the moderns.

The first question--What is loyalty?--is a question of fact, the second--What is the value of loyalty?--a normative question. I will start with the first question and conclude with the second, but since the two questions are closely entwined, there is no way of discussing either of them without at the same time addressing the other as well.

Let us begin with the question of fact: What is loyalty? Judging by the number of publications that appear every year with "loyalty" in the title, the subject is very popular. Hundreds of books and articles are published each year discussing loyalty. Looking closer into this literature, however, one quickly discovers that virtually all of it belongs to the useful but not very noble discipline of marketing. The loyalty in question is consumer loyalty, that is, brand-loyalty!

This is quite ironic. Here we have a sub-discipline of the "dismal science" of economics apparently deeply concerned with a subject--loyalty--that is wholly foreign, not to say contradictory, to that discipline's basic tenets.

As everyone knows, the central concept of economic theory is the free market. A free market is a place, any place, where buyers and sellers come together to buy and sell goods or services. There are many very remarkable things about the free market, according to the economist. To begin with, it is the most efficient and effective system of providing for the needs and wants of man, much more effective and efficient than systems of mercantilism, corporatism, or state planning. And it achieves this without much supervision and regulation. In fact, supervision and regulation generally hamper the functioning of the market and should therefore be done away with as much as possible.

Moreover--and this is perhaps the most significant aspect--for the market to function it is necessary not to put much moral strain on man, not to be too morally demanding. On the contrary, the market thrives on what comes most naturally to us: selfishness. This is paradigmatically expressed by Adam Smith, the founder of economics, in his statement that "[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

For the market to function well it is not necessary to be altruistic; indeed, it is even counterproductive to be so. Altruists ruin the functioning of the market. Also, it is unnecessary, even undesirable that people cooperate. What is needed is competition, non-violent rivalry between producers and consumers, each doing his best to outbid and outclass the others. The economist admits that there is some room for and need of cooperation within the market system. Corporations, for instance, are nothing but networks of cooperation. In general, however, there is a considerable risk that cooperation--e.g., cartels--will lead to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. In essence, the market is a system of competition, not cooperation, and the more competition there is, the better. Thus, the economist.

This undoubtedly is one of the most stunning and revolutionary theories ever put forward in history: imagine a collection of combative egotists, all scrambling to get the better of each other, and the outcome of it is the bonum commune, rebaptized as the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Much could be said about this theory--or rather, world view, since it is much more encompassing than a mere theory. …