For decades, meaning for as long as I have been alive and I suspect even longer, we have been patiently advised that the health of a civil society depends on the wealth of its citizens, which is a comforting message to hold onto amid the continuing fury of accusations and resentment, insults and innuendo, that fills every aspect of public life, in politics of course but also academics, arts, entertainment, sports, and consumer and retail marketing.
All these venues, and others too, which we have customarily understood to be settings for free discourse, amusement, or diversion, are now riven with activism, shaming, message sending, and virtue-signaling. It’s a sign of individual expression, of course. We value free markets in products, services, and ideas, and we’re well supplied in all those. While we are prosperous, it’s hard to see this agitation as a sign of a healthy civil society.
Nevertheless, there is much insight in the health and wealth equation, although it’s a message that bears many implications. The Cold War Era had its own assortment of civil disputes, many of them quite consequential, and yet there was never much doubt among the general population during those decades that the Western world’s prioritization of free trade and consumer autonomy were preferable to the societies that adopted more ordered economic and ideological programs.
Even if we were not fully enchanted with the conditions of our own society, we could see the fear and unhappiness spreading in the populations of those places, and the authoritarianism used to maintain the economic and ideological certainty, and we knew we had a better approach to maintaining civilization. The non-free economies of that era were shaped by a pursuit of economic “fairness” that seemed to make everyone poorer and less free.
Of course the Cold War Era was followed very quickly, and rather surprisingly, by the current age of global economics. It’s common still to hear analysis of “the emerging global economy,” but it is not emerging: formerly non-free economies took to free-market principles with enthusiasm, and global economics have shaped the health of our civilization and the wealth of individuals everywhere for nearly two decades now.
It was early in the globalism period that I noticed business and political leaders defining a contrast between “free market” ideals and “fair market” policies. They recognized the risk that global economics presented to various fixtures of the business landscape, and they wanted to limit free-market principles enough to protect local or regional economic interests, particularly in manufacturing and materials industries.
The first problem for anyone arguing for “fair markets” over “free markets” is that the number of individuals benefiting from the inevitable restrictions on products that result from higher taxes and tariffs is miniscule compared to those gaining the advantages of lower-priced consumer goods. Of course, U.S. automakers and appliance and electronics manufacturers have been disadvantaged by the expansion of the global market, and their workers have endured much of the cost. But, the number of individual consumers benefitting from more choices and lower prices for cars, TVs, phones, etc. is many times more than those impacted by the loss.
The second problem for fair marketeers is that there is no proven way to engineer good feelings by setting economic policies: every tax alters consumer behavior; every tariff draws a reaction from the targeted nation.
Of course, this is the moment we’re living in now. We’re guided by feelings more than principles. A restive and yet prosperous population wants some explanation for the many problems they see and feel. The term “economic nationalism” has been reintroduced to explain the approach that would address all this: "We're a nation with an economy," fair-market proponents often say. "Not an economy with a nation." This is true according to the fading standards of our past, but I doubt it can be accepted now in a civil society that values arguments and self-assertions above agreements based on principles. Given the poor health of our civil life, it would be better to embrace more freedom than to force anyone to adopt the shifting definitions of fairness.