The trade war has ignited debate on the merits of tariffs and the need to protect the nation’s manufacturing base. Battle lines are drawn between an exaggerated localism that stresses self-sufficiency and a bloated globalism where products transit the Earth unhindered and markets alone rule.
Those who adhere to a concept of self-sufficiency and protectionism tend to question the need for international trade. Keeping jobs and money at home becomes the most urgent consideration. Meanwhile, globalists insist on obtaining goods and services from anywhere, regardless of the conditions under which they are produced.
Thus, finding a balanced position on trade becomes a priority amid the commercial tension. However, the debate should extend beyond mere economic considerations and deal with the oft-ignored moral issues.
The Need for International Trade
There is nothing morally wrong with a healthy localism that facilitates the importation of necessities and discourages the unwarranted export of valuable local resources. However, we must also look at what moralists say about widespread world trade.
Church doctors are clear in demonstrating that natural and positive law all support the need for trade, whether national or international. This is because denying necessities to people would violate the Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. It seems nonsensical to sustain that every community must survive solely on the resources at hand. On the contrary, reason shows that trade is beneficial to societies since they frequently suffer from the lack of various commodities.
God did not distribute the world’s resources equally when He created them. He did this so that our dependency on others for the fulfilling of our needs would stimulate us to reach out to them, working together harmoniously. Thus, raw materials such as precious stones or rare minerals are universally sought yet concentrated in particular regions. Certain plants and minerals that contribute to the health and general welfare of peoples are found only in some places. Above all, scarcity of basic foodstuffs and other vital commodities in times of crisis makes international trade essential for relieving suffering and furthering the common good.
International trade also furthers cultural ends that facilitate unity and peace. The trade of luxury items, works of art, and other fine artifacts is wholesome since it facilitates a healthy interpenetration of cultures. Such items are particularly helpful to elites or those in leadership positions who need to understand the distinct mentality and way of being of other nations. Adopting a studied cosmopolitan attitude facilitates this interpenetration of cultures without harming the distinctively national and local traits of these individuals.
Thus, international trade should and must exist. It should be ample and common, especially when satisfying basic needs. However, it should not dominate or destroy local and national culture and production.
Church doctors recognize that just as rulers have the right to tax populations for the common good, they may also levy moderate import taxes to protect the national economy.
Communities and nations should have the right to take an attitude of self-defense of their own culture and economy when confronted with intrusive and especially unfair trade practices, like those practiced in Communist China. Out of love for its own identity, a local population can have a reasonable and healthy suspicion towards the invasion of global or outside products.
Such attitudes need not take on a coercive character, as in tariffs or duties. A much more effective means of defense is a natural protectionism—respectful of free markets—that in the past was born of a zeal whereby the population simply preferred the local product out of the joy of consuming that which was specific to it and a natural wariness for that which was not. Supported by healthy customs and local elites, people had the temperance of staying within the limits of that which was an expression of their souls, culture, and mentality.
It would be understandable, for example, that the population of a region or nation, which has had its own distinctive drink for over 500 years, might reject the entrance of a commercialized drink that has nothing in common with their culture. We can sympathize with the attitude of residents sipping their native Scotch while a ship full of cheap vodka lies rejected in the harbor . . .
A Balanced Defense
Any defense of the national economy must be balanced and flexible enough to encourage the importation of foreign products when local items are unavailable or inadequate. It should be realistic enough to understand that some local products may disappear through competition. In their enthusiastic preference for their own production, local populations should be broad-minded enough to appreciate some foreign products. These provide legitimate diversity and help give some spice to life.
At the same time, a community should avoid a false cosmopolitanism where world-class products are automatically adopted as a sign of “higher culture” in disparagement or neglect of the local culture and tastes. For example, a society’s systematic adoption of truly fine French wines to the exclusion of local wines, even when of good quality, proves that it is seeking to better itself inorganically, artificially, and inauthentically.
A More Fundamental Change Needed
In the face of the present trade war, there are limited options as to what can be done to solve the problems. Measures of economic self-defense against unfair trade practices are useful tools to help the nation. However, they do not address the frenetic intemperance of modern economy that belittles and sabotages the treasures of local culture and production in a global drive to standardize demand.[*]
A nation’s economy must be the expression of its people and culture. A balanced economy depends on a balanced culture. Supply and demand must be moderated by temperate living. The needed balance presupposes an entirely different set of values based on what Russell Kirk referred to as the “permanent things,” those norms of courage, duty, courtesy, justice, and charity that owe their existence and authority to a power higher than the markets—a transcendent God.
A truly free market is not found in the indiscriminate interplay of market forces, an exaggerated localism or global systems of total interdependency. It must be cultivated in an economy where individuals and families can develop their own personalities and potential inside a framework of virtuous life in common.
This essay was adapted from a chapter of Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go by John Horvat II.
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[*] John Horvat II, “Defining Frenetic Intemperence,” Return to Order.
The featured image is “Southern Harbour Scene With Merchants” by Abraham Storck (1644-1708), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.