Have We Been Duped?

I think it’s because trust was obliterated for my older sister and me when we were very young, when our father betrayed his daughters, abandoning us and ultimately dying before either of us ever saw him again, but if I had to choose the one thing that can set me off, it’s discovering that I, or anyone I perceive to be vulnerable or naïve has been “duped.” Nothing can evoke my contempt and sometimes my full-fledged anger more quickly than what I perceive as the intentional manipulation of one person’s trust by another with no regard for the truth or the wellbeing of the person whose trust he betrays.

When I read in the New Testament of Jesus’ storming into the temple, upsetting the tables of the money-changers, I see a similar frustration. Given what I’ve observed, that those who publicly protest against the thievery of trust usually end up dead, I suspect that episode in the temple is when Jesus tripped the lever in the minds of the power-hungry Pharisees and Sadducees. That’s when Jesus truly showed his hand—up to that point, he’d made them a wee bit nervous with his suggestions that their puny laws about washing hands and who it was okay to eat with and who not completely missed the point, but he hadn’t been quite so aggressive about challenging their perversity until then. In short, it was then they knew they had to get him out of the way.

So they cooked up a story, putting forth circumstantial evidence to convince those really in power that Jesus was up to no good. He was, after all, out to shake up the status quo, which inconveniently for them included their unchallenged riches, power and influence. It was okay for them to parade their gaudy wealth around—that was evidence of their righteousness. If one was poor, he was poor because of his own inadequacy, they said, and he needed to pray and present a sacrifice before god—providing a new opportunity to take his money by offering him the “service” of convenience in purchasing something he didn’t need. I can hear the carnival call: “Step right up, buy your forgiveness here!”

God, Jesus said, didn’t want their sacrifices but their love (and for the record, a bunch of other prophets, even in the Old Testament said so, too). He invited them to trust his Abba, his beloved, also their beloved, revealing for those who were paying attention that the religious leaders, the establishment of the time, had successfully manipulated them into believing that love, importance, influence, even life, was a commodity to be purchased—as if the value of a single human being were subject to the laws of supply and demand. The good people of Judea had been duped, and so, I’m afraid, have we.

Winston Churchill is reported as saying, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He also said, for the record, in defense of capitalism over socialism, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” (Note that he compares socialism to capitalism, and not democracy. One can be both a democrat and a socialist, as demonstrated by our neighbors to the north.)

Don’t get me wrong. As I think Churchill was also, based on those two quotes taken completely out of the context of the speeches in which he spoke them, I am, for the most part, a democrat and a capitalist. I believe that I am entitled by citizenship in this country to equal opportunity to pursue my happiness, and that includes receiving remuneration for services performed. I like business, I like financial statements, I like marketing. No matter which of the different jobs I’ve had during my career—and they have been varied, at least from the outside, I’ve most enjoyed the tasks of marketing associated with each. But I’m not talking about what mostly passes as marketing and advertising today. I’m talking about solving the puzzle of how the product or service I have fulfills a real and honorable need on the part of the person on the other end of the transaction, and figuring out how best to let that person know my product or service is available and how it is truly superior to a similar product.

When the idea of buying and selling first started, and that was long before Columbus was a gleam in his mother’s eye, if you were in the business of selling and your product either wasn’t durable or didn’t do what you said it did or simply wasn’t needed as much as another, your business failed. And if your product did what it said it did and fulfilled a real need (and not a “manufactured” one), your customer was so delighted that he or she couldn’t help but tell others about it, and your business thrived. Your business success and failure hinged largely on your ability and effort to create and market a product that others would willingly part with their money to obtain.

That, to me, is the definition of a “free” market—one where the job of the marketer is to inform that group of people with the need that could be fulfilled by it that the product existed, where it could be obtained and how much (or how little) it cost. In a “free” market, neither supply nor demand is manipulated by those with the power or opportunity to do it. One’s success, which was necessarily measured in part by the amount of currency acquired, was largely dependent on the accuracy of his assessment of the perceived value of the product to those to whom he sought to sell it. But when the honorable professions of marketing and selling morphed into activities aimed at coaxing potential customers into believing an untruth about their need, that their lives would be better or easier, or that their own value or importance or opportunities for growth would be increased by the use of a product or service or the election of a particular candidate, the “free” market ceased to exist. Instead, the “free for all” market came into being and with it, the mob-like behavior we’ve come to associate with that phrase.

Just for the record, in an economic sense, if such a thing existed, I’d be all for letting the “free” market rule. I like honorable competition—where ingenuity and intelligence and good judgment and talent prevail. I like coming in first in a race as much as the next person, if I achieved it on my own steam. But the “free” market doesn’t exist, except in the minds of those who, when they say it, mean a market in which they’re free of regulation—regulation that wouldn’t be necessary if their past actions hadn’t already made it clear, to those who are looking, that they can’t be trusted to tell the truth about what they’re “selling.” Like the moneychangers in the temple, who duped widows and orphans into believing that if they would just buy their doves, their sins would be forgiven, when all along, forgiveness was already theirs.

And there we are. Back at trust. Funny, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. And that comes from the little girl in me who had to learn the hard way that she was still worth just as much as the girl whose father hung around.

In God we trust, says our money, of all things.

Wonder what Jesus thinks about that.

And then again, I think I can guess.

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