As I watch the debate over tariffs, I can’t help but feel the two sides are not speaking the same language. They are talking apples and oranges. One side is concerned only about money while the other side deals with social impact.
I don’t think this apples-and-oranges debate can be reduced to which path makes more money or creates more jobs. It cannot be simplified into a battle between free traders and protectionists.
There is something profoundly cultural and even religious that is not being discussed. The first step toward understanding the trade debate is a clear statement of the problem.
Those Who See Tariffs as Restraint
Those on the first side, the apples, are headed by those who advocate unrestricted markets that must be free of all obstacles including tariffs. The apples are articulate. They are efficient in putting ideas into action and trumpeting the bottom line results that undeniably yield great profits. It is hard to argue with their success or their quarterly earnings reports.
The apple world thrives in a fast-pace, impersonal and frenzied climate. That is why apple markets can be very volatile with bubbles and crashes. Indeed, the apples pursue their goals in the cusp of a frenetic intemperance by which they want everything instantly, regardless of the social consequences. They are willing to eliminate any barrier, including tariffs, that stands in the way of their progress and leave behind those who fail to keep up.
The globalized apple world can also be profoundly anti-cultural. The apples tend to view culture with its customs and traditions as cumbersome obstacles to free trade. If need be, these can be sacrificed on the altar of comparative advantage and maximizing production.
Those Who Link Economy to the Culture
The second group is that of oranges. They are very different from the apples. They sense something is wrong with the economy and are unsure of how to address it. Unlike the apples, the oranges find it difficult to articulate their position and propose no specific program beyond a lingering status quo.
While still representing a large sector of the economy, the oranges try to keep up with the fast-paced apple world. They desire to apply the brake and slow it down. The oranges engage in business that is more personal, linked to place and engaged in the community.
Thus, the oranges lament the loss of their culture and grab onto tariffs and populism in desperation. Neither side can convince the other in this apples-and-oranges debate. Neither side seems to realize the other is speaking a different language.
Two Different Perspective of Economy
What I believe lies at the core of this debate are two different perspectives of economy.
The apple world seeks to disconnect economy from culture. It is founded on the modern obsession to see everything through the single prism of economics to the exclusion of all others. Thus, apples turn things into commodities that can be universally traded. They relentlessly standardize and franchise to insure greater markets. Apple markets are now algorithm-driven to insure maximum efficiency. Even when real people are considered, they become mere statistics or job creation tallies.
The apple economy tends to put snippets of cultures into a cosmopolitan blender and pour out an everything-everywhere mix. If cultures insist upon remaining, they can at least be branded, traded and appropriated almost like an extra flavor for a product, as for example, in “Mexican-style” chips. However, such brands are purely commercial and have no links with an actual culture.
The result is an economy with an enormous variety of goods. But the choices are largely the same everywhere. When I go to a Walmart on the West Coast, it displays roughly the same massive number of choices as one on the East Coast. The products tend to have no context with a locality. They lack soul.
Economy as an Expression of a People
The other perspective is that of the oranges which is handicapped by the fact that they have no formal economic philosophy. The oranges’ position is based on their real life experience in the marketplace. They have sympathies for more traditional ideas, but they dare not affirm them lest they be branded backwards or even nostalgic. In the apples-and-oranges debate, oranges suffer from the pressures of an apple-dominated world.
However, if the oranges were to put down their ideas in the tariff debate, it would be based on the idea that culture matters. An economy must seek to be an integral part of the whole culture. Products should be the expression of the desires and abilities of a community or people, full of creativity and exuberance. Business also needs to focus on being part of a community. The relationship between management and workers should be family-like and personal.
Most important is the need for business to adopt a moral code best reflected in Christian teachings since moral markets are free markets. Some Catholic theologians have even spoken about business as a vocation not merely a career. All this leads to an economy that is purposeful, and to products that have soul.
The Question of Tariffs
Thus, a Christian “orange” position on tariffs would be balanced and proportional. It would depend upon a society that is likewise ordered.
According to this Christian economic perspective, international trade should and must exist as a charity toward others in need of products. It should be both ample and common, especially when dealing with basic needs and commodities. However, it should not dominate or destroy local culture and production.
Church doctors recognize that rulers have the right to tax people for the common good. They can also levy moderate tariffs to protect the local economy from unjust and intrusive trade practices. This comes from a right of self-defense which should apply not only to an industry but also to the culture that surrounds it.
A Natural Protectionism
While tariffs may be levied, they are not the most effective means to protect an economy. There is what might be called a natural protectionism—totally respectful of free markets—that is the product of a healthy society, free of frenetic intemperance and the cosmopolitan blender.
This defense consisted of a zeal whereby the national or local population simply prefers its own products out of the joy of consuming that which is its own. It is based on people’s fondness for things that are “homemade”—the fruit of their own hands. They appreciate the natural resources God put in their own regions and lands. Supported by healthy customs, people then enjoy the temperance of staying within the limits of that which is an expression of their souls, culture, and mentality.
Thus, a national or local population would logically enjoy its own wines, cheeses or cuisine. Its people naturally take pride in the crafts they have developed over generations. That love of these special products is part of the glue that melds a people and its culture together. It is the best defense against the intrusion of unfair trade that undercuts truly free markets and stifles creativity.
A Balanced Defense
Like all Church teachings, such a vision of society is balanced and flexible. It would encourage the importing of outside products when national or local items are unavailable or inadequate. It is realistic enough to understand that some products may disappear through competition and neglect. Such a society would be open-minded enough to appreciate occasional outside products that provide the spice of life.
Such a community would also be immune from the fads and fashions that destroy true culture. This society would have enough character to affirm itself in face of the cosmopolitan blender. The ruthless dog-eat-dog mentality finds little support in such a temperate moral climate.
Someone might object that considerations like these do not appear to address the present trade war. I would agree…if we are talking apples. These thoughts certainly do not fit into the spreadsheets that calculate the marginal utility of tariffs or other such matters.
But if we are talking oranges, it all makes sense. The only real prosperity comes from a virtuous society under God. Measures like tariffs may be helpful in specific cases, but they are only a stopgap until such a time when people return to virtue.
While important, economics alone will not solve the present crisis. We need to address the superior side of man’s nature that is spiritual. When this spiritual side is addressed, it guides and gives rise to political, social, cultural, and economic solutions in sync with human nature. More importantly, it establishes meaning and purpose to life and ultimately addresses our eternal salvation.
We need to be talking more about oranges…