The Humanity and Resilience of Commerce

I saw the most heartening thing on Tuesday morning as Jennifer and I were riding through the brick and stucco Tativille that is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and Federal Courthouse complex here in Alexandria. It was the kind of thing that renews my faith in human ingenuity and the human spirit.

In short, I saw commerce — of the unlicensed, and therefore "illegal," kind.

No, not drug dealing or anything like that. There’s a lot of construction going on, tall brick buildings going up, filling up the muddy lots in-between expensive condos and federal office buildings. And where there’s construction, there’s usually a migrant workforce, busy setting concrete and laying bricks and hanging drywall and connecting pipe and whatever else workers of the construction trades do. And despite the fact that the buildings going up are very likely a closely monitored federal project (with various and sundry set-asides and carve-outs for favored contractors and legal stipulations that all workers be citizens or at least legal residents), no doubt some of those workers are the undocumented kind.

Some might call them illegal, but when should honest work — or an honest worker — ever be illegal?

But that isn’t what I saw either. As we turned right off a great, big oval roundabout, Jen and I passed a small woman, who appeared (at first glance) to be from Mexico or Central America, selling food out of a cooler in the back of her minivan. (Within spitting distance of the same federal courthouse where John Walker Lindh and Zacharrias Mussaoui faced their juries and where Judith Miller cooled her heels.) Or at least it appeared to be selling. I didn’t stop to make an offer to buy anything. She may have been giving her food away, brought a late breakfast or early lunch to her husband or brother and his coworkers at the job site. But I don’t think so. There was an awful lot of cooler in the back of her minivan, more than you’d need if you merely bringing someone you loved lunch.

If she was selling food, most likely she didn’t have a business license. And good for her!

Governments the world over strive to stifle one of the most basic human impulses — to earn a living through making and selling — by licensing sellers and regulating business. Ostensibly, most governments say they do this to protect the health and safety of ordinary citizens, to keep them from fraud and abuse. After all, the woman may be selling poisoned empanadas! Or she may take her customers’ money and then run away!

But the reality is that governments want to control who is in business and how business is done. At best, governments want to be able to count everyone who trades (and all their transactions) in order to tax them, which is why government data is never as innocent as it seems. At worst, governments want to make sure that no one can "make a buck" without first cutting those who run the state in on a share. Or, the managers of the state use their monopoly power to make sure only their friends can make "an honest profit."

The old core of Jeddah, called Balad, is full of such "illegal" businesses, men and women (mostly from Africa) in Saudi Arabia sell wares brought from home. Some stay beyond the expiration of pilgrimage visas, and some sneak into the country solely to do business. When I was in Jeddah, I bought two dashikis from a Senegalese woman who had spread her clothes out on a giant mat in a dark corner of a side alley, hiding — like many of the Africans — from the police, who have taken to making fairly frequent sweeps of the country’s less reputable districts to arrest just such people. It’s a pity. I can understand not wanting your country full of people who are there "in violation of the law" by entering without a visa or staying past the expiration of a visa, but what Saudi is going to sell dashikis in a dark corner of Balad?

And what American is going to sell good home cooking to Latin American construction workers building a new annex to the Patent Office?

Even Saudis skirt the law in their own country. The big masjid in Rehab district, where I lived, would play host to a tiny market every night after the ‘isha prayer — the last prayer of the day — with businessmen and women selling cheap textiles, appliances, pots, pans, dishes, fruits and vegetables and keeping careful eyes out for the police, who (strangely enough) never wandered by. And Balad is, in fact, full of Saudis making and selling, everything from incense to gold to lingerie. Some do very well, and some just barely get by. That is the way of things.

Commerce is an essential human activity, and by that, I mean that making things, buying things, and selling things are essential to our very humanity. Trade is one of the things that makes us human. Governments have tried through history to eliminate, regulate and prevent trade, but that doesn’t stop it. Where there is a need — base or noble, depraved or innocent — it will be filled. Because that is one of the things human beings do. There is simply no way around it.

Honest labor, honest trade, makes everyone richer. Was I defrauded by the woman who sold me the dashikis? I still have them, more than two years after I bought them, and the Ghanaians at my church think them very fetching. If anything, I defrauded the green grocer at the masjid one evening when I insisted on paying him five Saudi riyals (about $1.30) for three tomatoes when that was the price he was asking for an entire box — a box I did not need and could not use.

The only party worse for wear is the state, which did not tax those tomatoes, or those dashikis, or very likely the lunches served to the construction workers. Now, Saudi Arabia doesn’t tax its businessmen and women much, but that doesn’t stop the kingdom from imposing license fees and some pretty silly regulations (like what you are allowed to call your business). It’s why so many work "illegally" to begin with. (And why you shouldn’t trust any published Saudi "unemployment" figures.)

I do not like the words "illegal business." No honest work — work that doesn’t defraud, harm or coerce— should ever be "illegal." No one seeking to make an honest living by selling a good or providing a service should ever have to get the state’s permission to do business. That just feels so wrong, so inhuman.

You want an illegal activity? Government. Which of us would voluntarily wander a dark alley, or saddle on up to the tailgate of an automobile, and pay for that?

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is an itinerant freelance editor who currently lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He and his wife are preparing to start seminary in Chicago in September.