localism and free trade
Nathan has returned to blogging with quite a bloggy manifesto on some of my favorite topics – namely, localism, capitalism, and the struggle between free trade and the cultural side-effects of a consumerist, corporatist society. It’s a long piece, and I’m not sure where to draw out bits from exactly (just read the whole thing). Suffice to say, Nathan struggles with much of what I struggled with in the early months of this blog. I dabbled a bit in distributism; pondered the ill-effects of corporations and consumerism on communities; and even, for a while, argued that perhaps it was our duty to obstruct free trade in order to somehow prop up an ailing blue-collar workforce.
Distributism, in the end, came to feel more like an ideal than a practical solution. What insufferable inequities exist in modern capitalist societies often do because of statist interventions into the market – corporate welfare and subsidies, protections of industries and bailouts, and so forth (crony-capitalism to put it bluntly). Governments are far better at shoring up power than at providing truly meaningful safety nets. What little the state can do to reverse these inequities, almost always communities left alone to self-govern can do better.
In other words, what I viewed for a short space as a “third way” in distributism, I now believe is more of an idealistic version of capitalism, infused with a bit too much romanticism, and perhaps too many good intentions about “what’s best” for others. The economic policy that appeals to me most demands a divorce of big business and big government, much as UK author Philip Blonde calls for in his Red Tory movement. (And so we begin to see where these seemingly divergent beliefs – the Red Tories and other supposedly anti-liberal, anti-modernist veins of conservatism, the distributists and front-porchers, and classical liberalism or libertarianism – begin to converge. In their best senses they are all visions of a world in which individuals and hopefully communities are allowed to self-determine their futures without the nepotism and tyranny of the state and its corporate favorites determining it instead.)
Protectionism has become as loathesome a notion to me as anything. The direct action of the state in protecting whatever strong lobbying interest at the expense of citizens seems little more than another injustice of private/public collusion. Think of Big Pharmaceutical corporations. Prices for drugs remain high, driving health costs in America up and up, and driving sick people’s already hefty bills through their proverbial roofs, largely because the drug companies have little to fear from international competition. If our auto-makers had not been so constantly coddled by the government, perhaps decades ago they would have cleaned up their act and started producing better cars. Perhaps the choice to buy American or not would be a more difficult one to make than it’s become. Protection kills competition, not the other way around.
So, in the tariff we seem, at least presently, to perceive a most repugnant nature, abhorrent to our belief in both liberty and equality. What, then, of “free trade”? Returning briefly to the passages from Röpke, let us extrapolate that, within a cultural, social, and moral framework wherein economic policy is adapted to man — in a higher order of things not ruled by supply and demand, “the world of community” — free trade is something to embrace as a fairer, more equitable, exceedingly less totalitarian option whereby to accumulate the goods that contribute to leading a good life (though perhaps not the good life), which allows us to specialize in those industrial activities for which we are best suited (an allegedly wise decision to make, and something, wise or not, that is, for now, an unavoidable given).But Nathan is also right – free trade rarely is truly or wholly free. There is often too much temptation by doers of both good and evil, by those motivated by greed and graciousness alike, to intervene, to manage or plan or decide what’s best for the stupid people, as Bill Maher so recently opined.
I’m not sure about the bit about supply and demand – communities are built upon supply and demand, and so long as these are natural things, they are hardly anything other than the natural process of free trade. I have a supply of apples, my neighbors would like to buy them, and thus I provide them at a reasonable cost. Unless some other actor, namely the state or a criminal, interferes, everyone is happy. And the community is no worse off. Criminals and governments have a way of making such simple mutually beneficial acts far more complicated and messy.
First, what amounts to free trade rarely is, with decisions influenced by the same corporate entities who benefit most from tariff policies: It is managed trade that sacrifices environmental protection, our communities, and hard-working Americans’ jobs in the name of suppy-and-demand, efficiency, and corporate and shareholder (decidedly not stakeholder) profits.
True, what we have is not really free trade, but the issue here I believe is mainly the interference of governments on our attempts to trade peacefully, not some nebulous problem with doing things in the “name of supply and demand” which, again, is merely a state of affairs, not a purpose in and of itself.
In the end, though, there are simply no palatable alternatives to free trade, to organic markets. All that means, in the end, is that people are allowed to trade freely with one another without the long arm of the state getting in the way. The supply is not kept from those who demand it. The demand is not artificially created. People go about their lives at liberty to do so. Protection is the state, and it acts in ways that seek not to protect us but to protect big corporations or labor unions at our expense and without our consent. Government intervention more often than not helps subsidize our shallow, consumerist culture, and there is very little to suggest the government can return us to any place of virtue – of “place, limits or liberty” as it were. We are better left to our own better or worse natures, and to do as we see fit to shape our own way in the world. Hopefully left alone, and diverted from the culture of entitlement and consumerism we’ve drawn about ourselves, we can build something better.