As free traders continue to struggle with President Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, it can be easy to focus only on the immediate or surface-level effects, whether we’re fretting over a spike in consumer prices, a slowing of economic growth, a decrease in dynamism at home, or a strain on foreign relations abroad.
Those are legitimate concerns, to be sure. But in addition to any threats to material wellbeing or national security, such protectionism also inhibits and prohibits something a bit more fundamental — human creativity, social collaboration, and the transcendent beauty of free and open exchange.
Ultimately, trade is about human relationships, and markets are simply networks of those relationships: channels for people to interact with one another to obtain goods and services that they want or need. When it comes to what occurs within and throughout those trading relationships, it isn’t just a petty transfer of material stuff; it’s a creative exchange among creative persons, driven by service and, ideally, love of neighbor.
As we learn in For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, “Our work is not just toil, or something that concerns just us. It’s something that creates a huge organic mass of relationships between human persons…The fruit of that tree and all of our creativity is not only products, but relationships…The fruit of our labor is fellowship. It’s community.”
Through such a lens, expanding opportunities for trade is simply expanding opportunities to connect the work of our hearts and hands to those of our neighbors through creative service and collaboration. Conversely, hindering those opportunities doesn’t just provoke and strain relations with foreign countries, whether allies or foes. It cuts off paths for creative collaboration with real people, disrupting a diverse, peaceful, and productive web of relationships among workers and creators from across the globe.
For a visualization of these relationships, see the following visualization of trade paths from Blueshift:
“This is the oikonomia of economics,” says Stephen Grabill. “…All our work, every product, is a result of a great and mysterious collaboration. Every product that you see here is the result of an enormous, organic collaboration of individuals…It’s a picture of abundance and harmony, and if you try to control the process, it’s like we’re trying to control how people offer their gifts to other people. And what we really need to do is to allow people to offer their gifts to one another in free and open exchange, so that others can flourish.”
There are plenty of good reasons to oppose the latest wave of trade protectionism, but this is the most fundamental: God created our work to bear the fruits of flourishing and fellowship.
As we seek to construct a just and prosperous economic order for all, both at home and abroad, that basic tweak to the economic imagination makes all the difference.