(A Lament for Charlottesville, NAFTA and the proper use of Tiki Torches)
It is a very common clever device that when anyone has attained the summit of greatness, he kicks away the ladder by which he has climbed up, in order to deprive others of the means of climbing up after him. – Friedrich List; The National System of Political Economy
Georg Friedrich List was a German born economist who developed what is known today as the National System of Innovation. He was a forefather of the German historical school of economics and many of his ideas formed the bases of the European Economic Community, the predecessor of today’s European Union. His seminal work on the subject of economics and international trade, “The National System of Political Economy” is a three volume set originally published in 1841 which rivals the works of Adam Smith and Karl Marx in terms of lasting influence in the minds of economists the world over. Sadly List’s ideas were so controversial at the time that he was arrested and exiled to the United States. He died shortly after the final publication of The National System and never had the opportunity to defend or expand upon his theories.
List’s work focused on a doctrine of national and international management of trade, global collaboration, and supportive interconnectedness. In sort, Friedrich List was one of the first proponents of comparative advantage and globalization. The fact that most of his work was completed while living in the United States and the United Kingdom is in no small part responsible for the rise of western domination in international trade over the last century and a half.
In today’s political and economic climate List’s observations regarding protectionism and oppression can be viewed as very timely and prophetic. Just this past week, behind closed doors in Washington, the United States, Canada and Mexico began the first of several rounds of negotiations aimed at re-writing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). No doubt many of List’s ideas will be front and centre throughout the process, even if many of the negotiators aren’t even conscious of them.
The very people and systems that have used things like tariffs and subsidies to increase trade, and were once in favour of immigration to bolster the workforce and create wealth now actively oppose all attempts of others to use those same devices to achieve the same things. That, in a nutshell is the current state of international relations and trade, especially in the west were populist sentiment and neo-conservative economic thought prevails. America was built on immigration, subsidies and cheap labour, now they want to prevent Mexico and punish Canada for doing the same kinds of things in order to protect their own dominance on the world stage.
But that’s not all.
Economics isn’t just about money. It’s about politics and inter-human relationships as well. Earlier this week I watched in horror as white men marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia with Tiki Torches chanting “White Lives Matter” and calling for a return to white privilege and the establishment of a so called white homeland. Nothing is more repulsive than privileged men complaining about a loss of privilege in the most heavily skewed white male privileged society the world as ever known. If only these men really understood what it meant to be persecuted for the color of your skin, religion, level of education or economic status?
At the end of the day all violence is in some way about economics and a loss of privilege. Even a miniscule loss of privilege is still a loss of economic influence in a rapidly changing world. But change is necessary and hanging on to privilege while people scratch and claw their way up the economic ladder is simply impossible. The only way to do it is to deny the basic humanity in those below you on that ladder.
And that’s what it comes down to; Humanity. That is humanity defined in terms of benevolence, not just a collective description of the human race.
In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time it was a progressive document that envisioned a world very similar to the one proclaimed by the founding fathers in the United States Declaration of Independence. Among the 30 points adopted by the UN are such stalwarts of humanity as;
Article 7 – We are all equal before the law.
Article 12 – The right to privacy.
Article 20 – The right to public assembly.
Article 21 – The right to democracy.
Article 22 – The right to social security.
Article 26 – The right to education.
Article 30 – No one can take away your human rights.
Within the laws of western democracy and any country that is signatory to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, racist rallies like the one that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 13th are an aberration that cannot be tolerated! Nor can any attempt to restrict trade or curtail immigration.
Freidrich List warned against the potential for both the current contentious NAFTA negotiations and the riots in Charlottesville over 175 years ago. He could see that at the end of the day, people are selfish and we need institutions like NAFTA and the UN to remind us of our shared humanity.
My prayers are with the victims of racial violence in all its forms and with the men and women tasked with re-negotiating NAFTA. May we all, first and foremost, remember our shared humanity at times like these.
Lauren C. Sheil is a serial entrepreneur who has been in business for over 25 years. His latest book “Meekoethics: What Happens When Life Gets Messy and the Rules Aren’t Enough” is available on Amazon.com.
He can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 613-295-4141.