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If the direct feedback from social interactions can help facilitate morality and positive social relations, how can this be done on a larger scale? Corporations, nations, communities, coalitions, etc. are institutions comprised of many individuals. Staying within the framework of methodological individualism, we assume that the collective action of a single institution represents the unanimous will of all the individual agents affiliated with the organization. In a sense, the collective action “speaks” for the group. How does social distance influence the interaction between various institutions, nations, collectives, etc.? Per the insights in Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a person’s socialization and moral development are shaped by their peers. How would we go about socializing an entire culture? What factors enable us to peacefully co-exist with our neighbors? There certainly are not any clear-cut answers to these vast questions. The best we can do is hone in on the variables that help support human flourishing and social stability.

Some people assert that a common cultural identity is a cohesive glue that keeps the fibers of society together. There may be some veracity to this opinion as possessing a common culture can reduce the potential for conflict. However, there are some profound issues with holding culture as the variable that unites mankind as a whole. For one, commerce is global. Anyone in the business world cannot merely associate with people sharing the same cultural experience. In theory, you can, however, you would be severely limiting the potential reach of your business. Due to globalization and technological advancements, clinging to cultural identity has become more futile. Another consideration is that associating with people of a similar cultural background (closer social distance) is detrimental to our ongoing moral development. Demonstrating the fallacy of nationalism from both practical and moral perspectives.

If the cultural distance is inevitable what is one way we can bring people of various cultures together? Many people may suggest the use of international treaties. The parameters of such an agreement serve as nothing more than a compulsive obligation. Outside of state-sanctioned compulsory inclusion (which is not limited to treaties, but also pertains to sections of The Civil Rights Act of 1964), there is also social pressure to force the association between different cultural groups. We see this in the aggressive push for multiculturalism. The intentions of some proponents may be laudable, however, too often it is utilized as Trojan Horse for political opportunists. It should also be mentioned that does not arrive at cultural diversity through voluntary association. But rather from a form of informal social cohesion. While Smith may point out that conforming to this new norm would be an example of our peers shaping our moral development, this simply is not the case. Most of this rhetoric comes from the deepest fringes of academia. These norms are enforced through immense social pressure by a small minority of people who are out of touch with the real world. Cultural diversity is not something that can be forced by legal statutes nor by social cohesion. Rather it exists through the voluntary movement of people, which is a spontaneous phenomenon that cannot be artificially manufactured.

It is evident what fails to bridge the gulf between different cultures and societies. However, what can succeed at this seemingly insurmountable task? Here is where the themes of  The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and the Wealth of Nations (1776)  converge. The social arrangement that keeps the appropriate distance for peaceful relations between strangers is commercial societies (p.13). Please keep in mind that this is not the recipe for sustained and eternal peace. No thinker has been able to formulate a tried-and-true solution for eradicating violent conflicts. Our propensity for violence may be an unfortunate proclivity of human nature that cannot be contained by reason or by institutional means. Providing validation of David Hume’s assertion that we are essential “slaves to our passions”. Voluntary trade may reduce the frequency of armed conflict between nations. In commerce, we do need to maintain a certain level of professionalism (self-command) to establish an effective working relationship (p.14).

To perceive free trade as a magic bullet would be a complete fallacy. For one, if it was the key to enduring peace, world peace would have been achieved back in 1776. Ultimately, Smith viewed trade as a potential source of tensions between nations. It has been argued that Regan/Thatcher-era proponents of Neo-Liberalism overstated the role free trade plays in facilitating peaceful relations. If the tides of economic nationalism are not stifled international trade continues to serve as a weapon against rival countries (p.4). The growth of military strength tends to coincide with an expansion of the division of labor (p.5). Economic development reduces the perceived costs of entering armed conflicts (p.2 &5). Smith contended that the root of international conflict was power imbalances among nations (p.34). The prospect of an imbalance of economic power in global trade is the core assumption behind mercantilism. Exemplified in the rhetoric surrounding trade imbalances.

Even though Smith did see trade as a potential source of tension, does that mean that free trade could not reduce the social distance between different culturally distinct nations? No. It may not be the cure for global conflict, but it can reduce the instance of it occurring. There is something of a reciprocal relationship between social stability and economic advancement. The “violence trap” of the feudal era stymied economic growth due to instability in property rights (p.41). Coping with the constant upheaval of violent conflict is destabilizing enough to inhibit economic flourishing. While the prosperity of neighboring countries may conjure the envy of less fortunate nations, Smith suggested that the better-off countries should act as a model of what to aspire to. Rather than an adversary to hold in contempt (p.31). The rise of government and free trade may not conclusively prevent war, per Smith’s treatises that balance power and foster respect among nations helps reduce the instance of armed conflicts (p.32). Such agreements help align interests among different countries. From an economic perspective, unilateral trade agreements help balance the concentration of economic power among trading partners. Loosening the barriers to international trade not only broadens the market for domestic production but also works to reduce hostilities (p.33). Providing the power gap isn’t too wide and nationalistic sentiments can be dispensed with.

“By opening a more extensive market for whatever part of the produce of their labor may exceed the home consumption, it encourages them to improve its productive powers, and to augment its annual produce to the utmost, and thereby to increase1 the real revenue and wealth of the society. These great and important services foreign trade is continually occupied in performing, to all the different countries between which it is carried on. They all derive great benefit from it, though that in which the merchant resides generally derives the greatest, as he is generally more employed in supplying the wants, and carrying out the superfluities of his own, than of any other particular country. To import the gold and silver which may be wanted, into the countries which have no mines, is, no doubt, a part of the business of foreign commerce. It is, however, a most insignificant part of it. A country which carried on foreign trade merely upon this account could scarce have occasion to freight a ship in a century. (Wealth of Nations, p.358-359)”.

While voluntary exchange may not bring about world peace, it does help close the gap between different nations. Resources that could theoretically be dedicated to warfare are reallocated to production for the global consumer market. Providing a practical example of Frédéric Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy.  War does not generate wealth, but rather rearranges the disposal of resources. Wealth may be correlated with the advancement of military technology. The development of military technology does not necessarily generate wealth. Beyond free trade re-directing resources from armed conflict to the consumer market, there are also other intangible effects. When we engage in trade with foreign countries we are also exchanging culture and ideas. Attending a business meeting in Japan, American executives may consume food that they are not accustomed to. May even learn some of the subtleties of Japanese business etiquette. Through their Japanese counterparts providing the social ques imperative in business transactions in Japan. Talk about challenging a person’s impartial spectator. The American businessmen walk away with more than a new business partner. They are also exporting cultural traditions, new business practices, and even new types of food when they arrive back home. When we have more familiarity with another culture we are less apt to fear them. In turn meaning, we are less apt to bomb them. Closing the cultural gap requires not only a certain degree of openness but also an effective working relationship.

2 thoughts on “Free Trade: Closing the Cultural Gap

  1. excellent blog post (again); I will just offer one comment about international treaties versus domestic legislation: while domestic laws are (in theory) binding on all, a treaty does not have any binding force in country X until a country X decides to ratify the treaty!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent point. Unless validated by all parties, the treaty is as good as toilet paper. The conditions of the treaty need to be reviewed cautiously as one country could potentially seize more control than the other participating nation if the terms are inequitable. Generating more conflict and defeating the purpose of the treaty.

      Liked by 1 person

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