Emporia of Tolerance

by Don Boudreaux on August 19, 2014

in Civil Society, Seen and Unseen

My e-mail just brought an ad for the Museum of Tolerance in New York City.  I was unaware that such a museum exists.  Visiting it might be worthwhile.  (I don’t have time now to peruse its website carefully.)  Yet no matter how worthwhile and educational this museum might be, we – each of us in market societies – daily visit emporia of tolerance.

Visit any nearby supermarket or shopping mall or Wal-Mart or Home Depot or McDonald’s – any place where people earn money by serving strangers each of whom is free to spend his or her money as he or she sees fit.  You’ll find there strangers willingly serving others: sales people, clerks, cashiers, waiters and waitresses, and store managers happily working to satisfy the desires of strangers, and strangers voluntarily offering money in return.  As a rule – a rule very seldom broken – you’ll find no coercion and no fraud, no deception and no cheating.  You’ll hear choruses of “May I help you?”s and “Thank you!”s and “Have a nice days.”s and “Hope to see you again soon!”s.  You’ll almost surely not see people refusing to serve others, or refusing to be served by others, because those others worship a different deity, have a different color of skin, or are members of a rival political party.

You’ll witness an on-going series of voluntary, peaceful, and mutually advantageous exchanges, often lubricated with polite verbal remarks and pleasant smiles.  In short, you’ll witness one of the great achievements of commerce: widespread, unlabored tolerance – or, actually, something better than tolerance: indifference to the differences of others.  (To tolerate others’ differences is still to notice and to rank those differences as being significant in some ways; to be indifferent to differences is better than tolerance.  To be indifferent is not even to notice – or, if to notice, not to care – about the others’ differences.  And that, again, is better than tolerance.)

Call it what you will – tolerance or indifference or something else.  The fact is, a supermarket or a shopping mall, if we were only to pay attention, offers an on-going, daily, beautiful display of tolerance that, I venture, no Museum of Tolerance can match.

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