|Michel de Montaigne|
DEMADES the Athenian condemned one of his city, whose trade it was to sell the necessaries for funeral ceremonies, upon pretence that he demanded unreasonable profit, and that that profit could not accrue to him, but by the death of a great number of people. A judgment that appears to be ill grounded, forasmuch as no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another, and that by the same rule he should condemn all gain of what kind soever. The merchant only thrives by the debauchery of youth, the husbandman by the dearness of grain, the architect by the ruin of buildings, lawyers and officers of justice by the suits and contentions of men: nay, even the honor and office of divines are derived from our death and vices. A physician takes no pleasure in the health even of his friends, says the ancient Greek comic writer, nor a soldier in the peace of his country, and so of the rest. And, which is yet worse, let every one but dive into his own bosom, and he will find his private wishes spring and his secret hopes grow up at another's expense. Upon which consideration it comes into my head, that nature does not in this swerve from her general polity; for physicians hold, that the birth, nourishment and increase of every thing is the dissolution and corruption of another:-- "For, whatever from its own confines passes changed, this is at once the death of that which before it was."
Jewell had this to say about Montaigne's essay:
In a short three paragraphs, Montaigne completely misconstrues the nature of trade without going so far as to condemn it. Or maybe it’s just the title of the essay that is misleading. Montaigne writes that no one would have an opportunity for profit if no one else were dissatisfied with anything. Of course, that’s not the same thing as saying that one’s profit harms another. It would be more accurate to say, “One Man’s Profit Comes from the Relief of Another’ Man’s Harm.” It’s too bad they didn’t know about marginal utility in the 16th century.
Good economists know that every voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial, because each party receives something they value more highly that what they trade away. This is true even in the midst of trying circumstances. A physician who receives income from treating a sick person is not benefiting by harming his patient. He receives income as he treats his patient who needs his services because he is ill.
That trade is mutually beneficial was known at least as early as Aristotle. And in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas has this to say: "Buying and selling seem to be established for the common advantage of both parties, one of whom requires that which belongs to the other, and vice versa. . ." This understanding was embraced and developed by the British Scholastic also at the the Unversity of Paris, Richard of Middleton and by the Franciscan Pierre de Jean Olivi. In the 14th Century in his Quaestiones, a commentary on Aristotle's Ethics, the French philosopher Jean Buridan de Bethune further developed the principle of mutually beneficial exchange (On all of this see Murray Rothbard's Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, and Alejandro Chafuen's Faith and Liberty. Montaigne really should have known better.