Trade is great; trade is good.
Since at least 2000 BCE, since the first inter-tribal (what was to become international) trading of horses, gold, silver, silk, foods, oils, wines, knowledge, technologies, …; trade between peoples has enrichened the lives of humans everywhere. Traditionally, trade was the great cross fertilizer. Without trade, our world would be a lot more like it was 4000 years ago than what it is like today. But first, before there was trade, there had to be enough self-sufficiency (self-sufficiency being relative to a given civilization at a given time) amongst the peoples, the tribes, trading for them to feel that they could afford to part with a goat, a horse, a bit of gold, … in exchange for something different they would more like to have.
Not all trade is great, or good. Certainly not the selling of weapons to warring nations. The exploitation of less developed people by more advanced people clearly wasn’t good for the less developed people. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was itself fueled by trade; trade that was intended to enhance the wealth of the then first world England, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and France. Did so indeed; at horrendous expense to the Africans enslaved and traded, and to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The enslaved Africans produced the tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar that made their enslavers, and these enslavers’ international trading partners, wealthy. It was this pursuit of wealth that fueled the slave trade. Trade from which they, the enslaved, got but hardship and death. The pursuit of land on which to grow these crops for trade fueled the displacement and murder of indigenous people throughout the Americas, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The slave trade was a very unbalanced equation; the abducted were enslaved. This misappropriation of the natives’ land was theft; not trade. What is happening today, in this the 21st century, on palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia, is little different.
Trade at arm’s length, trade that is mutually beneficial amongst equals, is better. The slave trade was between the slavers, the slave traders, and the slave buyers. There was no handshake with, no compensation given to, no benefit received by the enslaved. Those being traded had little or nothing to trade, were barely, if at all, self-sufficient. Those being traded were treated as trade goods. Under modern statutes of commerce, none of the contracts of the slave trade would be valid, would be legally binding.
What if, instead of being based on the pursuit of more wealth for the wealthy, on victimization, the trade had been mutually beneficial between the Africans and the planters? Suppose those who wished to grow tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar for trade and profit had contracted with Africans for their labor (a valid trade good) with mutual agreement on pay, living and working conditions, length of contract, transportation, …? Suppose the planters had treated the Africans as trading partners? Suppose they had grown the cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar in Africa employing African labor?
What if, instead of exploiting, enslaving, and murdering the people of the Americas, Africa, and Southeast Asia, those doing the colonizing had dealt with them at arm’s length, as equals, to reach agreement on such as fair recompense for their land? Had sought mutually beneficial arrangements with the people of these lands? What if, in exchange, they had agreed to build housing, roads, schools, hospitals, …, infrastructure, across the land, had offered gainful employment, had given the indigenous people the skills to bring themselves into modernity? Had agreed to help them become more self-sufficient? Had traded with, not enslaved, not exploited? Were not the benefits of trade great enough that there would have still been reason to trade? The indigenous, though self-sufficient enough in their world, were not self-sufficient in the sense of the more modern Europeans. Their stone age self-sufficiency was being pitted against that of more advanced people.
What if, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States had traded at arms length with Latin America? What if, instead of co-opting their governments and stealing their resources, the US had helped them build housing, infrastructure, and manufacturing as compensation for their resources. Had paid them a living wage enough to make them self-sufficient enough to trade as equals? Had given them the technological skills necessary for their own advancement; for self-sufficiency in the modern world? If we had, wouldn’t Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, …, be better off than they are today? Wouldn’t we be better off?
Obviously, the colonizers and the 20th century United States preferred to avoid fair trade, did not want the indigenous people, people in developing nations, to be self-sufficient enough. Yet today, the United States uses trade as a weapon by telling developing nations that if they do our bidding they will be rewarded with trade. Such conditions on trade being but a different twist on sanctions, another way trade is weaponized.
What if, in the late 20th century, China had sought out investors to help her build her own manufacturing plants to supply her own domestic market, thus and still bringing China forward and making her more self sufficient while leaving the western world more self-sufficient than it is now after China’s export-based rise (The cheat here was China’s cheap labor.)? Can a nation’s self-sufficiency that is dependent on the non self-sufficiency of other nations survive for the long term?
What if, instead of destroying Venezuela’s economy by handing out cash for votes, lining his, his family’s, and his friends pockets with $billions; Hugo Chavez had plowed Venezuela’s oil money from international trade back into her economy to build infrastructure and productive capacity, to educate its citizens; made Venezuela more self-sufficient? What if Venezuela could produce her necessities; make her own medicines, grow her own food, …, today? What would a self-sufficient enough Venezuela mean to Venezuelans, to Latin America, to the world, today?
What if, in the spring of 2020, the US had been able to make one billion N95 masks, a plenitude of PPEs, …, in short order? What if, today, the US could produce one billion doses of COVID vaccines in short order? The US of 2020, of today, isn’t nearly as self-sufficient as it was in 1970. The US of today is more like Venezuela. Mostly because of her mismanagement of trade; mismanagement mostly assignable to greed. We sold away our self-sufficiency.
How self-sufficient should a nation, a household, be? Every nation, every household, should be self-sufficient enough to produce as many of its essentials as possible. This is not to say that every family should raise chickens, and grow and can their own vegetables as our grandparents and great grandparents did. The time came when subsistent farmers saw that they needed to send their kids off to high school, to college, so that their kids could compete, function, in the 20th century. All that August afternoon in 1985, the Fijian Chief wanted to talk about possible ways the tribe could make enough money to educate their young, to give them a fair chance. He understood their subsistence was no longer good enough, that his people needed to make the things they wanted to buy, needed those well paying jobs. Then, the good chief was casting about for ideas. Only one or two generations earlier, his American counterpart subsistent farmers could either find a job with income or see theirs go uneducated, be unable to compete.
What does it mean to be self-sufficient enough in the 21st century? The capacity to deal with a pandemic for starters. We Americans have seen front row, the whole world has watched, America fail spectacularly at coping with a pandemic. Even our government had ceased to be self-sufficient, can’t perform its basic functions (Was it traded away for campaign donations?).
Global Warming has forced homeowners and landlords everywhere, to reassess the sources of energy production, the optimal energy distribution structure. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels has led us to think of all-electric homes. The polar vortices and wildfires of recent years, the associated more frequent failures of the electrical grid, have prompted us to look for alternatives to the grid; for ways to make our households energy self-sufficient. Off the grid, whether by choice or due to grid failure, how does one generate the electricity needed to heat one’s home when it is 20 degrees below zero for days? How does one heat one’s home off the grid when there is neither enough sunshine nor wind to generate electricity? How does one make one’s home energy self-sufficient enough to deal with Global Warming?
Time was when trade was indeed the great cross fertilizer. Since the mid-twentieth, television, foreign exchange studies, the internet, media of all sorts, … have been. The considerations, the equation, for trade have changed. Today, trade is more likely to bring pests and disease than ideas. A good king would not want his country to be any more dependent on other nations than necessary; would seek to make his people, at a minimum, self-sufficient enough to produce critical goods enough during times of emergencies, most essential goods at all times; would seek, always, a balanced trade equation.