Colombo Port, by Jgmorard via Flickr

How My Mind has Changed on Trade

Since 1939 The Christian Century has been intermittently asking theologians to describe how their minds have changed. Every once in a while, a collection of the resultant essays are published. So, for example, three such essays by Karl Barth, originally published at ten year intervals, were collected in 1969 as How I Changed My Mind. As a graduate student in the early 1990s, I came upon a then recent instance of these collections, edited by James Wall and David Heim, in the library of my alma mater. It contained essays by Elizabeth Achtemeier, Peter Berger, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Mouw, and several others – and most significantly for me, an essay by Thomas Oden.

Reading Oden in the subsequent years has not converted this Calvinist to Oden’s Wesleyanism, but reading Oden did introduce me to the valuable notion of Christian paleo-orthodoxy (a creedal consensualism grounded in the synodical conversations of the first few centuries of Christianity), persuaded me of the relative priority of attentive listening over innovative creativity, cheered me by his frequent attention to ancient African Christians, and added to the very short list of perennial questions that guide my explorations—one articulated by Oden as follows: “How does God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ illuminate, regenerate, and transform our behavior in the midst of sin and death?”

Perhaps most significantly, the writing of Oden and others in that 1991 volume of essays from The Christian Century, in demonstrating how people’s minds do change, alerted me to the importance of intellectual modesty—being open to changing one’s mind requires an admission, after all, that one must be mistaken about quite a few things at any given time. As the opening phrase goes in one of my all-time favorite songs (Paul Simon’s Bach-inspired “American Tune”), “Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken …”

Apart from a handful of essential convictions (for example with regard to the love of God, the resurrection of Christ, the blessedness of all things in the world to come, the primal goodness of coffee, and the necessity of the Oxford comma in English punctuation), I am therefore increasingly open to persuasion by argument and experience with regard to almost everything on which I hold an opinion. Somewhat less so in matters of theology, somewhat more so in matters of politics and economics. The most significant way in which I’ve changed my mind over the past year has been with regard to the role of the state in governing the international trade of developing economies.

The biggest change I made in my views on political economy was in my early twenties, when I converted from a kind of small-is-beautiful anarchism (exemplified by Fritz Schumacher and Jacques Ellul) to a kind of Christian democracy (informed by notions such as the sphere sovereignty of neocalvinism and the subsidiarity of Catholic social doctrine) that valued market economies while being cautious of market societies. For the subsequent three decades, I have considered international trade to be an essential factor in the economic development of poorer countries, invested a significant amount of trust in the net benevolence of the international economic order constructed after World War II (and its institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization), supported most efforts to lower barriers against trade, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the USA’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and disapproved quite vehemently of populist protectionist sentiments.

Over the past two years, however, I have been reading and re-reading Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works, a careful (albeit polemical) comparative history of economic development in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China, with asides regarding Hong Kong and Singapore. Studwell’s historical argument has persuaded me that those Asian countries that most closely followed the macro-economic advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have accomplished less significant and less sustainable economic development while those countries that at most paid lip service to that advice (in particular, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China) accomplished perhaps the most spectacularly rapid and sustained economic development in all of human history.

Studwell argues that markets (both domestic and international) are indispensable to economic development, but that in developing economies the state plays an equally indispensable role in nurturing and structuring markets towards the purpose of national wealth generation (and concomitantly mass poverty alleviation). In Studwell’s argument, the state best plays this role by emphasizing (in the earliest post-feudal stage of development) land reform, market reform, and agricultural extension services in favor of smallholder farmers, and (in the closely subsequent “infant industrialization” stage) exercising trade discipline that protects emerging manufacturing industries against importers while demanding that those industries focus their efforts on becoming globally competitive. Furthermore, Studwell argues that the state in developing economies must closely control banks and stock exchanges so as to bias lending and trading in favor of smallholder farmers and export-oriented manufacturers. (For what it’s worth, Studwell enthusiastically endorses a relaxation in state involvement as economies develop, pointing to examples such as Japan and Italy where lingering state control has had counter-productive consequences.)

So that is how my mind has most significantly changed in 2015: for the time being, I am a protectionist when it comes to smallholder farming and infant industrialization in developing economies, while being no less vigorously than before a supporter of international trade and market economies in the global economy at large.

Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies


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