… is from Parker T. Moon’s 1928 volume, Imperialism and World Politics; it’s a passage quoted often by Tom Palmer – for example, on page 418 of Tom’s 1996 essay “Myths of Individualism,” which is reprinted in Toward Liberty (David Boaz, ed., 2002):
Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country – when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis” – we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead – thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?
Moon’s point applies also, of course, to trade. When we say, for example, that “America trades with China” we too easily overlook the fact that what’s going on is nothing other than some number of flesh-and-blood individuals living in, or citizens of, a geo-political region that we today conventionally call “America” voluntarily buy and sell with a number of flesh-and-blood individuals living in, or citizens of, a geo-political region that we today conventionally call “China.”
Nothing – nothing at all – about such exchanges differs in any economically relevant way from exchanges that take place exclusively among Americans or from exchanges that take place exclusively among the Chinese. Any downsides or upsides that you might identify as a result of Americans trading with the Chinese exist when Americans trade with Americans or when the Chinese trade with the Chinese. Yet personifying the collective masks this reality that all exchange is carried out by flesh-and-blood individuals, and that nothing about having those exchanges occur across man-drawn political boundaries is economically relevant.