… is from page 291 of the 2003 Liberty Fund collection, edited by Henry C. Clark, Commerce, Culture, and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith; specifically, it’s part of an excerpt from the Anne Cohler, et al., 1989 translation of Montesquieu’s 1748 book, The Spirit of the Laws (De l’esprit des lois):
The natural effect of commerce is to lead to peace. Two nations that trade with each other become reciprocally dependent; if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling, and all unions are founded on mutual needs.
DBx: Of course, commerce between the peoples of different nations doesn’t guarantee perpetual peace, just as absence of commerce between nations doesn’t guarantee war. But commerce between nations does indeed promote peace; peace is made more likely and more long-lasting. And the freer is the commerce, the greater the promotion of peace because the more extensive are the resulting bonds of cooperation and mutual dependency.
Perhaps even more importantly, people bound together in a web of commercial relationships come over time to think of themselves as part of the same society; cultural differences fade away as cultural richness rises. (An American who is skeptical of this claim might ask himself or herself this question: “When was the last time I worried about a shooting war erupting between Americans and Canadians?”)
Those of us who celebrate commerce – who champion free trade – who are not deceived by the false pretenses of rent-seekers cynically playing on popular feelings of national pride, or stirring up popular fears of foreigners – ought not shrink from offering full-throated praise of free and open commerce. Leave in the classroom, where they should be forever confined, the theory of the ‘optimum tariff’ and other academic curiosities that would have practical use only if our governors were benevolent and omniscient gods – and even then only on occasions fewer than the economic illiterati suppose.
There is nothing sophomoric, jejune, or naive about championing a policy of unilateral free trade that can be violated, if ever, only on the presentation of extraordinarily compelling evidence of extremely unusual and dangerous or inhumane circumstances.
We Americans are as wealthy as we are because we are fortunate to be citizens of one of history’s greatest commercial republics. Celebrate, by all means, the Declaration, the Constitution, federalism, and republican democracy. But celebrate too, and no less, commerce; celebrate our commercial history and spirit. Without commerce, we would be, by our commerce-forged standards, poverty-pressed barbarians. To be true to our commercial culture, we should embrace not only free trade between Americans living in different states, but also free trade between Americans and everyone else across the face of the earth.