Several thousand years ago humanity stumbled upon its most important discovery since fire. An early human, faced with an abundance of one thing and a shortage of another, traded some of their own surplus to another hunter-gatherer who had plenty of that which they themselves lacked. It was trade, and as humanity made greater and further advances, moving from the hunter gatherer lifestyle to that of the herder and farmer and thereby creating ever-increasing surplus production and then the means to preserve, store and transport that production, came wealth.
With that wealth came leisure time in which to make greater discoveries, to invent new means of production, new products to produce in a cycle that has led us to the present day, where, in the industrialized world at least, we enjoy a lifestyle that to not put too fine a point on it, would appear godlike to those hunter-gatherers of yore.
Curiously, however, as humanity has amassed greater and greater wealth, we seem to have lost sight of that basic element that lies behind the creation of prosperity. Somehow, populists have managed to create the illusion that, were it not for the avarice and unfairness of our trading partners, even greater and more impressive wealth would be ours—and thus was protectionism borne.
This is not a new concept and, in an odd turnaround of current events, protectionism and the imperialist control of trade actually lie at the roots of the creation of America itself. Boston tea party anyone?
If there has ever been a poster child for the benefits of free-ish trade, it has been the relationship between two of the world’s largest trading partners, Canada and the US. Few, if any, borders are as fluid in the back-and-forth integration of trade as is the longest unprotected border in the world. Many things pass back and forth across our borders, begun in one province, added to in another state, then passed back again for yet another addition in another province. The auto trade is a prime example of this, as is the trade in cattle, where animals born in one country are sent to the other to be fattened and prepared for market, before being sent back to the slaughterhouse in the other.
This steady back-and-forth flow has created wealth on both sides of the border.
Now, that wealth and prosperity is being threatened for cheap political gain by demagogues who seem more intent on their own grasp on power than the weal of their citizens. It isn’t that they do not know better, those at the apex of power cannot help but know the basics of how the capitalist system they espouse works and works best.
Unfortunately, as we have made technological advances and more and more jobs are lost to mechanization, robotics and better, more efficient means of production, those left out in the cold need someone to blame. As is usually the case with demagogues and populists, that villain is often someone outside of the tribe—in the case of America and the softwood lumber and dairy industry, that enemy is us.
As is too often the case when trade disputes erupt, calls for tit for tat responses have already began to grow strident on our side of the divide, as the current (and potentially future) premier of British Columbia has not only requested the federal government reply in kind to the US imposition of tariffs, but is initiating her own trade war salvo.
It can only be fervently hoped that, for all our sakes on both sides of the border, wiser heads in congress will behead the current monster of protectionism that has begun to sink its talons into our mutual prosperity. There will be no winners in this nascent trade war should it be allowed to boil up into full scale madness—in the end we all be poorer if trade between us becomes strangled.