Sunday, May 09, 2021

Recommend-a-blog (32)

Free trade is “a policy followed by some international markets in which countries’ governments do not restrict imports from, or exports to, other countries.” Or so reads the Infogalactic entry on the subject. The history of free trade goes back centuries, at very least to Adam Smith in 1776, but its global application really awaited the decades following WWII. I grew up with the idea, and accepted it unquestioningly as a “good” of sorts, a necessary corollary to freedom, capitalism and economic growth that benefits all.

After all, who wants to be a commie pinko, right?

In 1992, when Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed on to NAFTA, I still vaguely approved of the idea, or was at least sufficiently inattentive to have never worked through the larger implications of the free trade doctrine for the nations of the world, and even for my own family.

Needless to say, I am no longer on board the free trade train, and have not been for probably a decade now. Neither is this young gospel minister from Australia.

Me Me Me

Until recently, any objection I had to free trade was practical and personal rather than moral. After all, we Christians in North America have been effectively propagandized into repackaging economic growth as an innate moral good, a rising tide that lifts all boats — that sort of cheery nonsense. Then, a few years ago, the company I worked for abruptly began sending the jobs of my friends and co-workers to the third world, where even skilled labor comes at 1/10 the price of North American labor.

As a Christian (and especially as one who still had my job), I could vaguely get on board with the idea that even if these nice folks across the world were being horribly exploited by our company and its competitors — working 72 hour weeks for a pittance hundreds of miles from home, living in dorms and seeing their families a maximum of once or twice a year — at least it was giving these men (they were all males then and still are today) the freedom to seek opportunities and income they wouldn’t normally have had in their impoverished home employment markets. Our loss was their gain in some respects, and maybe there was something to be said for that. And nobody was making them take these jobs, right?

Still, the whole thing had begun to make me vaguely uneasy. What I was beginning to recognize is that the free trade engine has no brakes. There is no point at which it stops to consider what will happen to the people whose jobs it is stripping away after their local office or plant closes its doors forever. The grinding gears of the free trade machinery have no empathy, no sense of history, and no consideration of anything other than pure, ravenous, economic gain. In the free trade world, shareholder value trumps everything, period.

Others began to see this too. There is a case to be made that free trade gave us Donald Trump and the nationalism movement. And then Big Business took them away.

Free Trade and the Bible

But though I had a few practical and personal reservations about the way free trade ideology was starting to be applied around me, I had not read much in the way of economics and had never thought through the larger implications of the free trade doctrine. Still less had I ever explored free trade ideology from a biblical perspective, though of course I agreed, as all Christians would, that the love of money is bad, exploitation is bad, and impoverishing existing families is bad even it offers some minor benefit to other potential families elsewhere in the world.

Australian Matt Littlefield, who goes by the moniker “Young Gospel Minister” online (he is quite young, and definitely preaches the gospel; I’ve watched a couple of his sermons on YouTube) has taken the trouble to explore the subject of free trade extensively from a biblical perspective, and his sermon notes on the subject, posted to his personal blog, are well worth a careful reading, because he jogs us out of the rather binary notion that our alternatives are either full-blown communism or ruthless corporatocracy. He starts in Ezekiel 27-28 with Lucifer and his “abundant trade”, which makes powerful men even more powerful, and proud to boot. That alone should start a Christian’s alarm bells ringing.

After mining the prophet for a few good turns of phrase, Matt turns to the Law of Moses for an examination of the legal mechanisms by which God’s design for Israelite society prevented the little guy from losing his shirt and impoverishing his family by selling off his property to the highest bidder when in financial distress. His point is that placing legal limitations on what can be sold to whom, and when and how, is not inherently a bad thing; God himself did it.

From there he navigates to the New Testament, and various Pauline passages commanding generosity from the rich, requiring financial care of family members, and so on.

All these are good points, but I had never really explored them as relevant to the bigger economic picture, over which we Christians have little control.

The Bottom Line

I won’t spoil the post for anyone interested by fisking it paragraph by paragraph, but I appreciate Matt’s series of very practical conclusions. After all, free trade is the sort of airy-fairy subject about which Christians may have opinions for or against, but about which we really can do very little in the macro sense, other than to oppose it with our votes — assuming those still mean anything, and assuming we are ever asked to vote on it. Here is one practical exhortation:

“Resist splitting and fracturing your family, as much as possible, just to chase prosperity or wealth. A humble life with lots of family is better than a rich life alone. Free movement of peoples has accelerated the death of Christian society, because those who would pass on the culture to our kids were either too busy, or too far away, to do so. So, we left it to the public schools, and lo and behold, here we are, a pagan nation again.”

Ouch. Whether you agree or disagree, take the time to read it if you have never considered the subject. It’s worth thinking through.

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