Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop, Belknap Press, 2014
I lived in Morocco a few decades ago and needed some furniture for our apartment. A college student I had befriended, Hamid, offered to take my cash and negotiate with the dealer for me while I drank coffee in a nearby qahwa because, as he said, the price of the furniture would triple if the merchant glimpsed an American within a block of his store.
I hesitated to take Hamid’s offer only because I didn’t want to put him to so much trouble, but he mistook my pause for distrust. So he assured me that he could not cheat me because I had eaten dinner with him and his family and therefore enjoyed a status similar to that of a family member.
No Moroccan can cheat a family member or anyone who has eaten at their table. I gave Hamid my cash and later returned home to find a nice selection of furniture at a good, Moroccan, price.
Later, I met the owner of a construction firm who enlightened me further on business ethics in Morocco. He told me he spent a large part of his time thwarting the efforts of suppliers, customers, and employees to cheat him. The cleverness that went into dreaming up new ways to cheat him surprised me. He confirmed what Hamid had told me: cheating others is not considered unethical at all but a sign of an astute businessman. But cheating family members is immoral.
Moroccan business ethics might be appalling to westerners, but ancient Greeks and Romans would have understood and applauded them according to Larry Siedentop in his latest book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.
In Siedentop’s words, the book is ‘… a story about the slow, uneven and difficult steps which have led to individual moral agency being publicly acknowledged and protected, with equality before the law and enforceable ‘basic’ rights.’
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on MARCH 31, 2015.