A second intriguing idea (read the first here) suggested by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse in her lecture on the Economic Way of Thinking is that whereas politicians, socialists, and all sorts of folks that populate our opinion making industries see difference between individuals as a potential source of conflict, economists (at least those who endorse free markets) see difference as an opportunity for production, development, collaboration, and cooperation.
The basic premise of free market economics (with a generous hat tip to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations) is that free trades are always mutually beneficial to all the parties involved. A radical notion arising from a very simple observation—people never freely engage in activities that harm them—it nevertheless suggests that free markets lend themselves to flourishing. St. Paul drew on this intuition in his discussion of the way husbands and wives ought to love one another, and the principle holds wherever it is applied. The very simplicity of this observation masks the dynamic impact it has on not only discussions about the best way to engage in commerce and trade, but has far-reaching impact in more trendy topics like world hunger, child labor, global poverty, resource development in third-world countries, and world peace.
Western pundits and members of the intelligentsia are notorious for praising ethnic and cultural diversity—multi-culturalism—while rigorously demanding conformity and uniformity of thought. Ben Stein’s movie, Expelled is only a most recent example of the condemnation, disparagement, and attempts at censorship that those courageous few who happen to dissent from current popular, public, and politically-correct views often experience. Difference, if it is only skin-deep, is highly praised but our society is highly suspicious of difference of views when the nature and end of man is in view. There are a couple of possible reasons for this almost rabid oppression of difference of opinion, however, it strikes me as highly plausible that a major motivating factor is an abandonment of any overarching principles or methods that might resolve, or at least moderate, the discussion that rises up around the difference of opinion. When Reason lost its hold on the Western mind, little was offered to fulfill her vacant post—little at least that could fill her shoes.
This is what makes the free-market economist’s perspective on difference so intriguing. If differences can be viewed primarily as opportunities for collaboration and cooperation, then the fear of the Other (or the alternative unreflective and whole-hearted acceptance of the Other) is undercut from the very beginning. No longer do we risk every interaction with different people, ideas, or situations devolving into a power struggle that can, at best, yield a Cold War-esque peace through mutually assured destruction. Rather, every difference is an opportunity for one person to seek to understand the Other in order to offer some service, statement, product, or action that is mutually beneficial. While one party may not agree with the views of the Other, there is a motivation to at least understand, rather than retreat in isolation and fear.
It has been suggested that capitalism is not so much a market system based on greed, as an economic structure that enables a certain form of neighborly love. Free markets enable and even stimulate individuals to serve one another by providing incentives for producers to create products that meet needs of the consumers, while at the same time encouraging consumers to give their wealth to producers who turn it into further products. While perhaps not the highest form of love, this neighborly love encouraged by free markets is a far cry from the conflict and tension filled world envisioned by so many liberal thinkers when faced with the clash of ideas, to say nothing of civilizations.
It may be overly optimistic to imagine a world where free trade promotes world peace and prosperity, but the very suggestion that difference creates opportunities for cooperation can move us towards a new perspective on those around us—a perspective that begins with a lively interest and desire to understand those different than ourselves, with an eye toward meeting their needs and providing them a service that is mutually beneficial.