The notes and cards we exchange on Valentine’s Day cover a wide range of emotions—from intimate love letters for that special someone to the simple tokens of friendship exchanged among schoolchildren. The more ambitious (and talented) among us may craft Valentines by hand, but while such handicrafts are appreciated, most of us (when we care enough to send the very best) purchase and send the Hallmark-style card. Of course, some then complain that this commercialization invalidates the sentiments expressed, that capitalism has transformed a holiday meant to celebrate love into another profit center.
Yet, Valentine cards (and chocolates and jewelry and dinners) are exchanged because we enjoy giving and receiving gifts. That those products and services are provided by for-profit firms does not inauthenticate the feelings expressed in these exchanges. After all, while some invite friends over for a home cooked meal; others invite them to a restaurant. Which best deepens our friendship will vary depending upon our culinary skill, our enjoyment of the process and many other factors. Both options can foster human relationships which then blossom in unexpected ways.
Indeed, one of the key achievements of a market economy is expanding the array of options for such exchange possibilities. Markets themselves create a global web of friendly, voluntary connections. That was noted in the classic economics essay “I, Pencil,” by Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read. In that essay, he described how every day countless people around the world collaborate in the creation of an object as seemingly simple as a pencil, even though most will never meet:
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding!
Many products, from a simple pencil to a Valentine card, requires ingredients sourced from around the world. To bring together these ingredients into a final product requires continuous interaction of buyers and sellers, strangers who absent a market might never have met. Valentines strengthen friendships between current (or hoped for) friends but commerce goes further making friends of strangers.
As with pre-printed Valentine’s Day cards, critics might scoff that these friendships are “only” commercial, that a moral society should encourage friendships based on non-economic values like compassion, charity, and hope instead. Moreover, this focus on the economic aspects of human relationships might weaken other forms of social interaction, leading to societal alienation, the sterile “bowling alone” society, famously described by political scientist Robert Putnam.
Those arguments miss the larger point. Markets encourage friendly economic links. Friendliness makes it less costly for buyers and sellers to negotiate and reach agreement on such complex matters as the terms for the trade, its price, quality, style, and delivery dates. But during these negotiations, the two parties often learn much about each other. Friendships are common among those trading and working together—often their enthusiasms and interests entice us. We may find that we share an interest in music or sports, in hiking or woodworking. One might also share religious beliefs or devotion to a charitable or ideological cause. Many even meet their future spouses at work.
On Valentine’s Day, we should celebrate capitalism not only for the prosperity it creates, but for the many ways in which it fosters and validates friendships, enriching the vast array of connections that bind us together in civil society. So this year, send a card to your sweetheart, but also think about the friendships that your purchase made possible among the printers, designers, and copy writers who produced that card. And yes, add also to that list those involved in producing the pencil you’ll need to address it.