I am currently reading (on CD) the book Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. Calvin Coolidge was a quintessentially Republican president in the mid-nineteen twenties, whose most quotable pronouncement was,
“The business of the American people is business.”
Coolidge, however, a native small-town Vermonter, was no indiscriminate business worshipper. Coolidge believed businesses had to earn the trust of their customers by producing a reliable product at a reasonable price.
This reminds me of a theologian named Heschel who, when asked about the biblical commandment requiring the honoring of one’s father and one’s mother, appended the sensible qualifier that parents ought to behave in a manner that would make honoring them a natural consequence. There was no,
(Translated from the indecipherable) “My father said I talked too much, so he glued my tongue to the roof of my mouth.”
(Clearly articulated) “Do you still honor him?”
(Translated from the indecipherable) “I have to. It’s in the Bible.”
Parents, Heschel suggested, had to deserve what they were asking for. As did – and do – according to Coolidge, businesses.
I have been meaning to write a post entitled, “Everything Changed With The Move To The Cities.” Because I sincerely believe it did. In Coolidge’s time, fully a quarter of the American citizenry still lived in rural areas, and were (as was the president) the products of contiguous small town acculturation.
I shall not extol the virtues of small-town living, as I have never lived in a small town, and would therefore be transparently talking through my hat. I am aware, however, that many, most specifically, young people opt to escape from small towns as soon as humanly possible, seeking excitement, greater opportunity, and asylum from a world where everyone knows your business, and though they may not exactly poke around in it, are not averse from gossiping energetically behind your back. If that’s an exaggeration, I apologize. But I believe there is some fire related to that detectable smoke.
My interest, in this regard, is a narrow one, based, as usual when I don’t entirely know what I’m talking about, on my less than fully information-infused imagining. (Those more knowledgeable in this context please resist a temptation towards a rolling of the eyes. And let me know where I missed the mark.)
Okay, here we go.
Possibly as a result of the way they were raised to by their families, and/or because of how they were religiously trained, or because the bond kinship or at least common history required them to, it would seem not great stretch to believe that small-town businessmen were sociologically directed to behave decently towards their customers.
Fair treatment was not only the “right thing to do”, it was mandatorily prudent in a constricted community, because if your word wasn’t your bond, and your handshake wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, the message was quickly disseminated, and not long thereafter, you’d be entirely out of business, the local customer base favoring your competitor who, the scuttlebutt maintained, did not lie and gouge and cut corners, and produce shoddy workmanship, and finagle. At least not as egregiously as you did.
That’s how it worked, he (meaning this writer) imagines. In a culture where everyone knew everyone and everyone blabbed about what they knew, “good business” meant acceptable service, and bad business meant you packed up and relocated somewhere far away, where nobody as yet knew you were a scalawag.
“Everything Changed With The Move To The City.”
In a big city, nobody knew anybody, freeing business to jettison its moral compass if it so desired without consequence. I don’t know about you, but, in every imaginable arena, I have this oppressive apprehension that – so as not to seem too crazy let’s say almost – everybody is ripping me off.
Doctors ordering up questionable medical tests to pad their bills. A pool-fence provider assuring me that the paper I was signing did not contractually obligate me to his services when it most specifically did. An auto body shop seemingly pulling the mouth-dropping charges for repainting a front and rear bumper out of their larcenous backsides.
With the migration to the Big City, the “glue” of interpersonal connectedness is no longer a factor. They don’t know me; I don’t know them. We will probably never see each other again. Let The Exploitational Games Begin!
I imagine this is the reason for the kind of online recommendational services such as Angie’s List that would be a practical redundancy in a small town.
“We hash it over in the coffee shop.”
And that would be that.
“Whaddaya think of the new dentist?”
“He’s a good egg.”
“Whaddaya think of the new dentist?”
“He overcharged me for a cleaning. And there was no “complimentary” dental floss when it was over.”
In the city, you have to discover these issues online. Leading to another paranoidal concern: Who are the people writing these comments?
“Is this good, honey?’’
“Perfect. Now make up a fake username, and send it in.”
“Caveat enptor?” you say. Of course. But where is the evidence that the next guy is any better? (Plus, you have to know Latin to get the warning.)
A lot of things changed with the move to the big cities.
I shall continue on this subject in tomorrow’s post. It is not to be missed. You can trust me on that.
Or, since you don’t know me…