Michael Hicks is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics and the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
Over this weekend most of us will find occasion to pause and honor those who died in America’s conflicts. Pastors and politicians will speak of the demands of peace, while acknowledging the sacrifice of war. I am afraid they will ask too little of us.
These talks will inevitably contrast war with peace. That is understandable, since many believe that the opposite of war is peace. That is mistaken. The opposite of war is trade. Peace asks nothing of us, demands nothing of us and expects too little of our efforts. Peace is easy. Peace cannot build upon itself.
In contrast, trade forces us to move beyond benign coexistence into cooperation. The conduct of trade is necessarily between willing buyers and sellers, without coercion or force. Trade demands we trust one another and that we view the other as a consumer or supplier of our goods or services. Trade demands that we exercise empathy and anticipate the needs of others. Trade builds upon itself, moving us away from the evils of conflict and war.
The simple, seemingly banal transactions of commerce call upon the best things in us, for the humblest of purposes. Trade disciplines our trust and hopes, and it demands we treat one another with dignity. Peace is hermitic, while trade is social. The opposite of war is not peace, it is trade.
For this reason, political rhetoric that equates international trade with conflict isn’t just mistaken, it is immoral. It intentionally disregards more than two centuries of accumulated knowledge on the effects of trade. Those who argue against trade can be likened to someone speaking authoritatively on healthcare matters, but who is unaware of germ theory or anesthesia. Professor C.S. Lewis reminds us that God hates a lazy mind as much as a lazy body; and, the false equivalence of war with trade is the most indolent of thought.
Worse yet, political rhetoric that equates international trade with warfare dishonors those whom we remember this Memorial Day. Their sacrifice was not merely to bring about peace, but to restore a world to the pursuit of something more lasting. Those who ignorantly oppose trade are working to make that sacrifice in vain.
None of these essential truths suggests that trade is perfect, or commerce unable to be improved. If it were, much of my life’s work would be wasted. Trade will discomfort some families, just as the steam engine, plow and car before it. Nonetheless, the immense gain will always outweighs the losses. We can surely do better at reallocating some of the benefits of trade without denying them to our children and grandchildren. This is a decent and reasonable discussion to embark upon. However, this conversation demands a level of integrity and attention to facts that are quite absent today.
It cannot be repeated enough; for the world to flourish, it must also trade. Trade reminds us in tangible ways that those who make the products we buy and those who buy the products we make are not our enemies. They are not the unseen souls of a faraway place. They are fellow men and women who are self-evidently deserving of respect. Trade demands a common dignity that peace alone cannot deliver. Trade forges between us a common future, while peace delivers only the present.
No one who has been to war can equivocate a trade war with a real one. My personal experiences of war were hard, which maybe explains why I cannot equivocate trade with war. But, with the passage of time, I have come to despise those who would interrupt trade for short-term political gains. They are cowards play-acting as patriots, and worthy of our contempt.
As the summer begins, our economy is showing weaknesses caused by ill-informed rhetoric about trade wars. As of this writing, the administration has seen some grim early data on the effects of tariff threats. Thankfully, they blinked, calling a brief pause to their "trade war." It seems the fear of mid-term elections offered the world an ugly insight into our national judgement. But make no mistake about it, as dawn breaks on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, the ugly irrationality of embarking upon a trade war will once again grip our nation. The rhetoric will be just as uninformed, the objectives just as murky and confused and the potential effect just as bad. We would be wise to remember that, but this is not a column about an election, it is about much more.
On this weekend, I will remember Hal Reichle, Terry Plunk, Tommie Bates and many others who died in service to our Republic. In so doing I ask each of us to think about the unpretentious matter of trade with the same devotion, intelligence and energy that these men brought to the battlefield. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.