Peter Suderman and I must have different measures of excellence when it comes to blog comments. One man’s example of excellence is another man’s example of fallacious nonsense, I suppose. Here he signals his agreement with Will Wilkinson’s comment, to which I took so much exception earlier today, and has this to say:

Will, in his excellent comment, makes pretty much all the points I would’ve in order to counter Michael’s economic arguments. Globalization and the interdependence through trade creates far more stability than an inwardly focused economy. Technology has been the engine that has exponentially increased the potential for human productivity, allowing faster, cheaper, more available goods to anyone and everyone (goods which, I’ll add, free trade makes even more readily available, eliminating more poverty). China may not be a glittery paradise today, but Thomas Sowell recently published a column in which he quoted undercover economist Tim Harford as saying that “China is lifting a million people a month out of poverty.” While there are still clearly many gains to be made there, this is no small feat. Wealth, trade and prosperity create peace and well-being far better than nationalistic self-centeredness.

What does it mean to say that globalisation and interdependence through trade create more stability? What sort of stability do we mean? Certainly not international political stability. The world economy had never before been more integrated than it was in 1914, and the worst military conflict in world history to that point happened among the very industrial nations whose every economic incentive should have directed them to avoid conflict with one another. At the very least, these things do not discourage political instability, and in my view they can make nations even more interested in interfering militarily in the affairs of others to pursue ever more and more remote economic interests created by this blessed interdependence.

The libertarian will point to trade barriers that existed before the war, or will blame nationalism (fair enough) or the structure of the nation-state itself, but if he is right about the power of markets to create “stability” he has to explain why the most integrated international economy up till that time collapsed in a bloodbath of massive instability. The rest of this is rhetorical. What Mr. Suderman calls “nationalistic self-centeredness” I would call common sense patriotism and looking after the national interest.

Trade serves the national interest when it provides things that a nation cannot provide for itself, when it fulfills a need. To that extent, trade is natural and good. Absolute economic independence, or autarky, is obviously a practical impossibility for an industrial society, but it does beg the question why it is so objectionable as an ideal and undesirable when possible. It is the ultimate expression of the virtue of apragmosyne, minding our own business, which has nothing to do with being self-centered and everything to do with looking after one’s own kin and neighbours. It might be said that no man was ever so peaceful as when he was busily tending to his own backyard.

If past nationalists have chanced to stumble on this old piece of wisdom I am hardly going to dismiss it simply because I find nationalism offensive (as I most certainly do) or because they misused the concept. But speaking of nationalism, how is it that conservatives, almost always the most constant enemy of nationalism, are the ones getting tarred with this label? Why were economic liberals in the 19th century always the first and most obnoxious political nationalists? Because, among other reasons, they liked the nation-state as a way to break down trade barriers. No local, particularistic self-centeredness for them!

Now the nation-state constrains them and annoys them, so they will need something to come along and smash new barriers. Generally, conservatives tend to be fans of barriers of all kinds, so the liberal/libertarian proclivity for smashing them always puts us on edge. As the old conservatives would have defended a plurality of German principalities against a single German nation-state, so we today prefer a world of nation-states to any form of globalist order, be it market- or bureaucracy-oriented (with the WTO, it is becoming both). Most seem to think that “the market” or “globalisation” will break down nation-states all on their own, and the media is awash in stories about the decline of the nation-state, ignoring that in the final analysis what broke the sub-national polities was force employed by the liberal nation-state. The same thing will happen to nation-states when supranational bodies achieve some coherent, working order and turn to suppress and gobble up those “self-centered” nations that do not see the big picture a la the background to The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Trade is not in itself a political good, which is to say a good of the polity. Trade that exists to fuel consumerism is simply a blight, a parasite on a nation. To want to curtail that is not to engage in “nationalistic self-centeredness,” and to want to encourage it is to endorse a society of consumers, at once subject to passions and politically and economically dependent in a way that makes a mockery of the claim that they are free men. No one will be able to argue successfully that a consumerist economy is morally edifying–it prizes and extols an acquisitive spirit, which is precisely the sort of spirit any traditional understanding of virtue rejects.

No one is really questioning that technological advance improves productivity. That isn’t the question, and no economic alternatives Michael or I are going to put forward will deliver more efficient productivity. Libertarians always talk about how these or those people are “better off,” but there is never much sense that this being “better off” brings them any closer to living a sane, humane life. They have more and cheaper stuff and more cash–yes, we know. And? That’s just the point. In the order of “cultural libertarianism” there often isn’t much more than those things for most people because “cultural libertarianism” will sanction no public norm or public morality, much less religion, and are content to see countless tens of millions of their countrymen sink into a moral and spiritual torpor in the midst of a culture bereft of aspirations to beauty, truth or the eternal. That’s freedom, they’ll say. But it is not the freedom of morality, to say nothing of a higher order of freedom found in the control of the passions and, ultimately, in dispassion itself.

For me and Michael, I think it is fair to say generally, economic goods are of secondary importance and cannot take precedence in our vision of order. In any event, what also seems obvious is that such advances and increased productivity can also have corrosive side-effects, which is what I think Michael was saying. You can either hope that private organisations have the means to cope with the numerous corrosive side-effects of a multi-trillion dollar economic machine (which seems simply ridiculous to me), as Mr. Suderman does, or you can say that communities and nations have legitimate authority to restrain the causes of that corrosion. This is not to impose an austerity regime, but simply to have moderation and restraint govern affairs. The other alternative is that you can, like Mr. Wilkinson, pretend that there is no corrosion or degradation at all.

How the principle of legitimate regulation is enforced, and at what level of government it occurs, are things that should seriously be debated, and I cannot emphasise strongly enough the need for an extremely decentralised solution. Subsidiarity and common sense demand this. But to rule regulation out prima facie, as libertarians do and indeed must, seems to me to be equivalent to throwing up one’s hands all together in the face of cultural decay.

In this country, many conservatives have been inclined to entertain laissez-faire ideas on both economics and morals on the assumptions that economic growth was either neutral or actually contributed to the good order of society and that traditional “values” would fare well in the “marketplace of ideas.” Those assumptions were wrong. The conservatives who have realised this have accepted that, even as economic goods are secondary, economic growth has far more potential to harm the primary goods that we treasure than some of us have allowed up till now and that, as with everything else we consider significant, we believe there should be some means beyond whatever can scrounged up voluntarily to protect those primary goods, because those goods touch on the moral and cultural welfare of the commonwealth. Because these things are vital to the well-being of the commonwealth, it seems clear enough that there is a genuine public interest in them that calls for some sort of legal authority to involve itself in these affairs.