Free trade doesn’t just make us better off.
It makes us better people.
Donald Trump claims that raising barriers to trade is one of the things it will take to “Make America Great Again,” but he is wrong. Greatness—both of wealth and of moral character—comes from trade. And we have known this for a very long time.
Back in the fourth century St John Chrysostom argued that God had arranged the geography of the world in such a way that humans would be required to trade with one another to meet their needs:
For, that the length of the way might not deter us from a mutual converse, God has given us a shorter road, the Sea, which lies near every Country; that the world being considered as one house, we may frequently visit one another, and mutually and easily communicate what each country affords peculiar to itself: so that each man who inhabits a small portion of the earth, enjoys whatever is produced elsewhere, as freely as if he were Master of the whole. And, as if we were at a well-furnished table, we need only stretch out our hand and give what stands before us to those who are places at a Distance from us, and in our turn receive from them what stands within their reach.”]
Chrysostom envisions the world as a house where we can move easily from room to room, bringing one another what is needed from where we are. And, as if he is worried that this image might not sufficiently emphasize the easy mutual aid that occurs when humans exchange, he provides an even more intimate image. The world is a “well-furnished table” and when we trade, it is as if we have done nothing more or less important and generous than to pass the bread to our hungry dining companion.
God Wants Us to Trade
Chrysostom’s follower, Theodoret the Archbishop of Cyrus, agrees with him that God wants humans to trade. He wants them to do so expressly in order to encourage friendship and peace.
For the Creator, wishing to instill harmony into human beings, made them depend on one another for various needs. For this reason we make long voyages on sea, seek our needs from others, and bring back cargoes of what we want; nor has providence allocated to each section of the earth all the needs of mankind lest self-sufficiency should militate against friendship.”]
Indeed, for Theodoret, the lack of necessities in certain parts of the world is a proof of God’s goodwill. Not only has a benevolent deity arranged the earth so that the sea connects us like hallways inside a house, but the same deity has spread out the varying good things that fill the world in such a way that we are eager to trade with our fellow humans. And through that trading we make friends.
Hugo Grotius was inspired by these arguments in the 17th century in his magisterial The Rights of War and Peace where he defends the practice of trade (particularly sea trade, which is especially important for a Dutch writer).
God has not bestowed all his Gifts on every Part of the Earth, but has distributed them among different nations, that men, wanting the assistance of one another, might maintain and cultivate society. And to this end has Providence introduced Commerce that whatsoever is the produce of any Nation may be equally enjoyed by all.”]
Lovers of markets and free trade have always praised the ability of trade to bring us better material goods. Sixty-five years before the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations Joseph Addison’s Spectator celebrated the pleasures of a world enriched by trade:
Our ships are laden with the harvest of every climate; our tables are stored with spices, and oils, and wines: our rooms are filled with pyramids of china, and adorned with the workmanship of Japan: our morning’s draught comes to us from the remotest corners of the earth: we repair our bodies by the drugs of America, and repose ourselves under Indian canopies. My friend Sir Andrew calls the vineyards of France our gardens: the spice-islands our hot-beds; the Persians our silk-weavers, and the Chinese our potters. Nature indeed furnishes us with the bare necessaries of life, but traffick gives us greater variety of what is useful, and at the same time supplies us with everything that is convenient and ornamental.”]
But pyramids of China and piles of Persian silk (no matter how wonderful they might be) are not the gains from trade that interest Chrysostom, and Theodoret. Even Grotius—much more inclined to appreciate material delights—is aware that there are other, spiritual gains to be had from free trade.
When we close down free trade, or allow others to close it down for us, we lose not only the material advantages that it brings to us as individual consumers, as producers, and as a nation. We lose the moral advantages that it brings us as well.
We do not need to believe, like these early Christian writers, that God designed the world in order to promote free trade for us to see the moral benefits of it. Montesquieu, in the 18th century, argued in a more secular style that:
Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that where ever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.”]
Peace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who traffic with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.
Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” is merely a 20th century updating of Montesquieu. (Friedman’s theory that no two countries that have McDonald’s restaurants have gone to war may not stand with no exceptions, but it’s a fairly solid rule of thumb.)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in 2003 that “it is the market — the least overtly spiritual of concepts — that delivers a profoundly spiritual message: that it is through exchange that difference becomes a blessing, not a curse.”
As any introductory economics class can tell you, after all, if we were all exactly alike we would never exchange anything at all. Because we are different, we have the opportunity to make ourselves and other happier by trading what we have.
Trade teaches us to get along with one another despite those differences. It helps us understand how different people think, act, and make choices. It gives us reasons—spiritual, social, and material—not to make war, not to hate, and not to distrust each other. It allows us to help ourselves and to help each other to all of the good things at the world’s rich table.
Rich in Spiritual Goodness
We need to insist upon our right not merely to be rich in material things, but to be rich in such spiritual goodness as well. At a minimum, governments ought not to force their citizens to be worse human beings. When governments step in between small peaceful interactions—the charitable serving of food to the homeless, the provision of transportation to under-served neighborhoods, the Little Free Library movement, and so on—they make us worse on a small scale. When governments slam the doors, lock the gates, and build new walls against free trade, they make us worse on a large scale.
It’s hard to make a country great when you won’t even allow it be good.
This piece was originally published at the Foundation for Economic Education.