In their defenses of free trade, advocates routinely focus only on the long-term, economic benefits, and understandably so. The overall expansion of trade in recent years has led to greater economic growth, innovation, and prosperity for all, including America.
Protectionist policies may offer immediate relief and security, including a host of short-term political and economic solutions and benefits for particular industries or corporations. But on the whole and in the long run, politically directed tariffs and taxes are more likely to spur crony capitalism, harm consumers, cramp innovation, and delay the necessary re-tooling to remain a strong and dynamic nation in a globalized world.
Given our newfound national appetite for protectionist policies, free market advocates have plenty of work to do in better communicating those concerns, as Samuel Gregg recently pointed out. Yet in addition to more carefully making the economic arguments, we should also be mindful that free trade presents an opportunity for something else: namely, the expansion of creative collaboration and connection.
Part of that lesson was famously illustrated in “I, Pencil,” the popular essay by Leonard Read which urges us to have “a practical faith” in the economic and material good that might happen if we simply “leave all creative energies uninhibited.” Yet even here, readers tend to focus too heavily on the material ends and outcomes, rather than reflecting on the social, cultural, and spiritual benefits of the exchanges themselves.
For example, what might we see, at a deeper level, when we observe the following visualization of the global market in 2015?
Some will see the miracle of the marketplace, and the efficiency, value creation, and range of opportunities that it represents. Others will see $15.6 trillion in imported goods (each dot represents $1 billion in value, meaning there’s more at work than what we can see). Others will look to the more “silent” corners that aren’t so well connected, yearning for an even greater expansion of those circles of social and economic exchange. Others will notice those areas that are well connected, but where local communities and workers are suffering and struggling to adapt to the relevant disruptions.
These are all things we must see, and each serves as a significant input to our personal, cultural, and political responses. But as we stretch our economic imaginations, we mustn’t forget that even as we’re mindful of the material progress and the real imperfections and genuine human struggles that lie beneath, this is also a striking picture of harmony and creative collaboration in a diverse and disparate world.
In addition to threats that protectionism poses to authentic economic growth and prosperity, it also seeks to inhibit or prohibit our ability to expand these networks and relationships, and in turn, the beauty of the collaboration itself. America will benefit by forming those partnerships and cultivating those relationships, and not just economically. There is power and value and generosity in our trading and exchanging, and its fruits extend before and beyond the material stuff.
For Christians, this picture of collaboration and partnership ties closely with the view that work is fundamentally service to others and thus to God. “Work restores the broken family of humankind,” writes Lester DeKoster. “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.”
As we offer those gifts up to our communities, countrymen, and the global world, and as we expand the channels for doing so, we should be honest and realistic about the economic disruption it is bound to involve, as well as the other risks and pitfalls that will come along the way. But on the whole, we can move forward with hope and service and contribution, adapting our work to the needs of the world around us, and uniting with others to cultivate new pathways, ideas, and partnerships for creative exchange and prosperity.
We are closer to our global neighbors than ever before, and that is a good and beautiful and promising thing if we respond accordingly, reorienting our hands and our hearts toward an abundance that connects and collaborates, serves and sustains.
“The day we went to work we locked hands with humankind in weaving the texture of civilized life,” writes DeKoster, “and our lives each found the key to meaning.”