Sunday, January 25, 2015

Free Trade: Still "Civil" After All These Years?

In a recent Upshot article, Tyler Cowen notes recent world violence, and considers whether economic freedom is still capable of sustaining social tolerance. That provided impetus for me to return to some thoughts which ended up getting edited out of yesterday's post. While civility and tolerance aren't quite the same thing, they're certainly close enough to suffice, here. Cowen also mentioned the fact that education didn't correlate with tolerance to the degree one might expect. Alas, all those classroom suggestions to be civil "just because"...aren't quite enough!

Does a benevolent attitude towards others depend on one's neighborhood, or perhaps one's income? To some extent, these factors color perceptions of trustworthiness and willingness to engage with others. Supposedly all is well and civility is real, after all these years of prosperity. Adam Smith was among the earlier economists to note the propensity of "truck and barter" to encourage civil behavior. But do individuals still engage in commerce in the ways that provided these early social benefits?

It depends. So long as one's work involves negotiation on personal terms with others, the same drivers of civility and positive relations are likely there. However - in too many instances - entire groups of individuals are expected to abide by the decisions which experts and others make on their "behalf". Problems can arise for both social and personal development, if the ways one interacts with others all day are determined by someone else.

With little ability to negotiate in one's work or home life, individuals become unable to discern what is actually reasonable, in relationship terms. It's often difficult to reciprocate well with others, if personal circumstance does not include reciprocity for one's own needs. By no means is this just a problem at the level of family, if there is little ability to negotiate effectively in one's working environment.

Autonomous forms of work such as the "butcher, baker, candlestick maker" of yore, were the epitome of those early arguments for increased civility. Even so, hard factory work was still means by which one could build a life. Most of the mind numbing aspects of factory work are now a part of the past. And yet, the new freedom to pursue a better future is dogged by continuing uncertainty. For anyone who spends decades following orders, the new autonomy - desirable though it may be - doesn't have understandable context. How does one work with others according to individually determined needs, if there is no existing marketplace to make this happen? No one really understands what to negotiate for, until work on individual terms is better understood.

Much about civility depends on what people are actually doing, rather than simply thinking. Some mistakenly think that people are civil to one another in society just because they are "expected" to, and forget the degree to which civility is a learned reflex. Cultural norms have also become confusing, in that a tremendous amount of economic activity now exists well beyond local circumstance.

Individuals have the chance to negotiate, when they take direct part in the trade that is actually occurring. But how to accomplish that? For one thing, work is no longer so much about what needs to be done, but what people want to be done. That is a crucial difference which takes some getting used to. When globalization does so much of the work for everyone, it's time to think about more desirable work and life settings which once seemed impossible to create. Tradable goods now need relatively little human effort, and the challenge is to pursue what individuals collectively imagine.

New services roles would be a logical part of this reality. However, some of the most important elements of knowledge based services formations, were created outside of normal free market processes. As a result, their secondary role left services definitions susceptible to excess authoritarianism, at the very moment when production processes for tradable goods were becoming more horizontally structured.

When knowledge based services structures are indirectly funded, hierarchical organization makes sense. However, direct compensation for knowledge use systems would allow horizontal organization to also evolve within local settings. One of the more important aspects of such a development, is that it would allow civility to return to places where scant little has been possible. Such formations would also bring new vitality, to sparse settings which have suffered for decades.

Part of one's ability to be spontaneously civil to others, simply stems from confidence in the future. Who can't help but notice that parts of the world prone to violence, are also places where hope has been lost. Until now, developed nations offered the example of free trade as a way forward and a beacon of hope. However, as traditional production no longer provides the level of employment that was once possible, nations now need to generate full employment by bringing services formation into a free market capacity. In order to do so, services formation has to be accessible not just in consumption terms, but also in production terms. Nations need to be a beacon for their own citizens first. Then - and only then - can they really remain a beacon, for others.

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