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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 214 of Deirdre McCloskey’s excellent 2019 book, Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All:

An important evil of nationalism – aside even from its intrinsic collective coercion, in line only with an “ancient” liberty, and its tendency to define minorities such as Jews and Muslims and Mexicans as “not us” – is that it inspires war.

DBx: Society larger than the family or tribe – society as we moderns understand it – emerges from commerce. The countless cords of understandings, expectations, and mores that weave individuals and small groups into society are themselves spun from the the even larger number of threads of commercial cooperation that naturally emerge from what Adam Smith called “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”

My ability and willingness to trade with you – along with your ability and willingness to trade with me – enables the sum of our output to be greater than this sum would be were each of us to work in isolation, without any economic connection between us. I concentrate – “specialize” – on doing a smaller number of tasks than I would do without trade. You, too, specialize on doing a smaller number of tasks than you would do without trade. We then exchange with each other some of what each of us produces.

Each of us, with trade, can consume more than each of us could consume without trade. This happy effect occurs even if neither of us becomes better at performing any productive task. (Yet because specialization does cause each of us to become better at performing the tasks that each of us specializes in, trade causes the growth in output and consumption to rise even further.)

You become dependent upon my talents and efforts just as I – indeed, because I – become dependent upon your talents and efforts.

This dependency itself reduces the likelihood that you and I will get into fights with each other. Oh, we might occasionally bicker over price – “You should give me more fish for each of my bananas,” I will perhaps one day demand. But if I harm you, or even act in ways that prompt you to want to have nothing more to do with me, I harm myself. The same truths hold also, of course, for you with respect to me.

You and I are woven together into a social unit by our economic dependence on each other and by the understandings that we develop of each other in order to trade. We must be able to commune-icate with each other. We must, each of us, be able to empathize with the other. (“How might I improve my commercial offer to her in her eyes in order to persuade her to improve her commercial offer to me in my eyes?”)

Trade is productive. Trade is civilizing. Trade makes us better people. Trade itself is peaceful and it promotes peace. Trade – commerce – is the foundation of any society that extends beyond the small clan. (Trade might well be the foundation of the small clan and even of the nuclear family, and even beyond the obvious exchange of sex for the provision of food and protection. But this particular point is not here my own.)

Put differently, society is not designed by anyone. It certainly is not created by the state. It’s not the result of a social contract and cannot possibly be so – a reality, by the way, that does not imply the impossibility or undesirability of effective written constitutions for government, constitutions the provisions of which can usefully be assessed by the norms of the voluntary contracts often made amongst private people as they trade with each other.

Society, being the result of trade, is assaulted and weakened and shrunken by restrictions on trade. And what is true for trade that occurs exclusively within political borders is true for trade that occurs across those borders.

In this imperfect world of ours there might be good reasons for the nation-state; I do not here join that debate. Nationalism, however, is a beastly danger. Nationalism is impoverishing; it is an enemy of civilization; and it promotes war. Nationalism is nothing but a modern manifestation of our worst tribal instincts, fears, and superstitions – instincts, fears, and superstitions made much more dangerous by the productive capacity made possible by trade. How ironic.


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