There are a lot of unmowed lawns where I come from. Many of them sit before homes, once occupied by more or less happy families, now abandoned to neglect and decay. Not far from the empty houses, there’s plenty of formerly occupied commercial space. Anybody wanting to open a business in town wouldn’t have a tough time finding a place to do it. But, nobody there wants to open a business.
I grew up in one of those little Midwestern towns whose economy was supported by manufacturing. We had a bunch of small factories in town, but the big one was the Chrysler plant where my dad worked. That people worked in factories and that they made liveable wages for doing so was a given of my childhood. I had Christmas every year courtesy of the UAW. I passed strike lines on the bus on my way to school.
After a long period of withdrawal, those factories are now gone. They’ve been replaced by fast food outlets and a big meth problem. And Wal-Mart. The changes occasioned by an increasingly open global marketplace have been utterly destructive to the town and the community that once thrived there.
Given this background, Joe Carter’s defense of these deleterious practices strikes me as short-sighted to say the least. Carter’s argument is that unrestricted free trade benefits the individual consumer and that governments ought always side with consumers against producers.
He illustrates his argument with a couple of hypothetical pie-makers named Mary and Martha. Martha, in this illustration, is selling slices of pie for a dollar each. Then, Mary, who lives a long way away, starts importing and selling whole pies in Martha’s town for 10 cents. How is Mary able to sell pies so cheaply? Because the government of her town subsidizes her costs.
In Carter’s mind, this arrangement is great for the citizens of Martha’s town because they all get pie more cheaply. If the government of Martha’s town were to ban the import of Mary’s pie, Carter says, it would be protecting Martha’s business at the expense of all her cheap-pie-eating pals.
Carter acknowledges that Martha will be put out of business and says her loss is “unfortunate.”
The illustration Carter offers is as concise a summary of the ideology of the free market as one can imagine and, on it the surface, exhibits a logical coherence that makes it plausible. But, enthusiasm for this model is only sustainable so long as we don’t look outside the confines of the tight box it draws. When we do, we see a messiness the intense focus of the argument conceals.
The first problem with this argument is that it assumes the chief function of an individual is to be a consumer. Carter assumes that whatever benefits people IN THEIR PRIMARY ROLE AS CONSUMERS also benefits them in every other role. When, in reality, what benefits us as consumers might very well harm us in other aspects of our being. What is good for us as consumers, for example, may not be good for us as citizens, as neighbors, as parents or as souls.
Second, this model abstracts the individual from his social context and ignores the massive costs associated with unrestricted markets. When we look at the changes occasioned by the policy Carter advocates, the picture becomes less appealing.
Both these problems become plain if we return to Carter’s example. So, Mary begins importing her cheap pies into Martha’s town. Consumers buy up loads of Mary’s pies and abandon Martha, who goes out of business.
For a while, she’s out of work. Being out of work is especially tough for her because she’s widow with children. The loss of her income means she has to stop giving to her church. Instead, now she has to draw on the resources of her friends there to make ends meet.
Martha doesn’t want to move her kids away from their grandparents. But, her options for work in town are limited. She goes to work in the Wal-Mart bakery. She makes less than what she did selling her own pies. She racks up late charges on some bills she can’t pay, money that would otherwise gone back into her local economy.
One benefit of making and selling slices of pie was that it let her stay home with her kids. Now, that’s gone. They’re often in bed when she gets home from work. She’s not exactly sure what they do during the day.
She’s also had to curtail her involvement with the local historical society. She used to give tours of the local museum, but now her boss insists she work on Saturdays.
Eventually, it all gets to be too much and Martha moves to a bigger city and takes a corporate job sitting in a cubicle all day. Her kids are now raised mostly by teachers at their troubled public school. They rarely see their grandparents.
Against all these losses: the drain on community resources, the weakened relationships between mother and child, diminished capacity for the preservation of the community’s history, and disrupted extended relationships, Carter offers us the consolation of cheap pie.
In short, the model Carter advocates expects all the losses it implies to be salved by the availability of cheap consumer goods, by a redundant stream of useless crap. Sure, Martha’s kids don’t see grandma any more, but they now have a different spatula for every day of the week!!
The idea that possessing multiple spatulas can make up for losing grandma strikes us as absurd because we know Martha and her children do not exist in the world primarily as economic beings. Instead, economic activity serves as a means to allow them to participate in complex webs of relationships and intangible values. Reductionistic approaches like Carter’s suggest the loss of all these other, harder to name goods can be offset by the chance to buy a DVD of Showgirls at Wal-Mart for just five bucks. Such a claim ought to be visibly false to anyone looking around. If you can’t see the damage these ideas have done from where you are, let me know. I’ll give you directions to my hometown.
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