Acton Institute Powerblog

Work Is Not About You: How Theology Can Save Us from Trade Protectionism

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It’s become rather predictable to hear progressives promote protectionist rhetoric on trade and globalization. What’s surprising is when it spills from the lips of the leading Republican candidate.

Donald Trump has made opposition to free trade a hallmark of his campaign, a hole that his competitors have been slow to exploit. In the most recent CNN debate, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich each echoed their own agreement in varying degrees, voicing slight critiques on tariffs but mostly affirming Trump’s ambiguous platitudes about trade that is “free but fair.”

Why so much silence?

Unfortunately, as Tim Carney details at length, voters are biting and swallowing what Trump is peddling, and conservatives are struggling to find solutions that sell. “Conservatives may scoff at this Made in America mindset as economically illiterate,” he writes. “But politically, it seems to be a winner.”

As for why such positions are harmful, Joe Carter has written at length on the issue, outlining why so-called “trade deficits” are not what they seem and how the typical protectionist responses end up hurting the American worker and global economy (similar, no doubt, to the same approaches to labor and immigration). Academic studies bear this out from every corner of the ideological spectrum. As Carney aptly summarizes, “Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman and every economist in between has concluded that open international trade improves the welfare of all countries involved.”

But alas, despite the weight of the economic evidence, the cultural backlash from everyday Americans has roots that go a bit deeper. For most Americans, economic policy is not about the long-term prosperity of America or global humanity. It’s about security and self-preservation, plain and simple.

In a series at The Stream (Part 1, Part 2), I highlight this reality, and the response it requires, noting how the temporal, materialistic promises of protectionism can only be countered by appealing to the true and transcendent.

It’s one thing to see the hockey stick graphs on global prosperity and shout “hooray.” It’s another to be willing and ready to take the punches and make sacrifices when economic progress bumps your preferred resume and retirement plan in the wrong direction. To be prepared for that you need to have healthy understanding of what work is actually for and why we’re spinning our wheels in the first place.

Supporting free trade doesn’t just require a tweak in our macroeconomic theorizing. It demands a full-scale adjustment of our attitudes and imaginations. Which is why the failure of modern conservatism to combat trade protectionism is not just a failure to communicate economics; it’s a failure to promote a holistic philosophy of life and a healthy theology of work, one that’s oriented not toward a self-constructed “American dream,” but toward an authentic pursuit of full-scale freedom, good stewardship and human flourishing. Conservatives have been talking for so long about tax cuts and entrepreneurship and trade as paths to prosperity that we seem to have forgotten the purpose of the work itself.

As Lester DeKoster reminds us, work is ultimately about “service to others and thus to God,” and thus, expanded channels for distribution bring tremendous potential, whether as nonbelieving creators seeking to create or as Christians seeking to love our neighbors and glorify God.

“Work restores the broken family of humankind,” DeKoster continues. “Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding … As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit.”

It may seem like a small shift, but it matters a great deal in how we respond to things like trade policy and economic freedom:

Though it will pain many Americans to hear it, and contrary to the nationalistic whispers of Trumpian protectionism or the materialistic voodoo of #FeeltheBern mercantilism, work is not ultimately about you…

If work is about service to others, no longer should Foreigner X or Migrant Worker Y or Unskilled Laborer Z be viewed as “stealing your job,” though the frustration will surely persist. Instead, we should realize that they, like us, are finally able to participate in the global economy, offering their own forms of service and their own unique gifts and talents in new and efficient ways. They are participating in God’s grand design for work.

Through this lens, the prospect of job loss is no longer an occasion to mope about what was or wasn’t an “American job” in years gone by. The pain and nostalgia will likely endure, but we can remain hopeful and confident in knowing our work is not done. In these cases, job loss is simply a signal of how we might best use our time on behalf of others. It’s an opportunity to adapt and retool, to serve the community in new and better ways, as uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be. That’s going to require an entire shift in the imagination of America, but it’s one that will revive and replenish far more than surface-level economic growth.

As I conclude, America is not insulated from its competitors, whether we pretend to be or not. We are closer to our neighbors, and that is a good and beautiful and promising thing if we respond accordingly, reorienting our hands and our hearts from a work that secures and accrues to one that serves and sustains.

Read the full series at The Stream: Part 1, Part 2

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.