Trade Is Not War

By Graham Peterson

The left, people in the humanities and other social sciences, neoconservatives — none of these people are to be blamed for their manifest misunderstanding how economic activity works.  Businesspeople have led a disastrous PR campaign for at least 100 years.  Let’s say I talked about raising my kids all the time and used the phrases takeover and target constantly, smiling and proud of my parental accomplishments.  Startled, people would probably whisper about me.

That is exactly the type of language people use to talk about the modern business corporation.  Target markets; corporate takeovers, tracking sales, and so on.  People might have a better sense of markets and trade if the people involved in them did not consistently invoke the language of chasing a terrified animal around the woods and slaughtering it.

The Gender scholars have been onto this observation for 40 years.  Masculinity in business extends beyond images of cigar mouthed, cackling old boys in executive clubs — much of it is baked right into the academic theory of business organizations (distinct from the economic theory of the firm).  Or that one should approach his job with the loyalty of a warrior if he wants to move up, his wife and kids understanding that he is sacrificing for the good of the country.

And the Gender scholars are absolutely correct.  A company is not called a company on accident: modern business organizations were deliberately modeled after the organization of a military company.  These days we launch ad campaigns.

Now there is something to all of this masculinity and war.  Going way, way back, it appears that men were indeed almost exclusively the hunters and and warriors of any indigenous community (this is one of very few cartoons about indigenous people that actually holds).  Two tribes faced with competition over the same resources have two options: fight, or specialize and trade.  So it shouldn’t be totally surprising that the difference between fighting and trading has been largely muddled and continues to be.

But I submit that the masculinity and warring has almost nothing to do with the benefits of economic growth that we have modernly come to enjoy.  Men have been aggressive, well, forever.  So no, cunning and aggressive negotiators like the Jack Welches of the world have not created our exponentially increasing economic productivity.

We enjoy the wealth we do because of our innovativeness, and that comes primarily from in fact rearranging organizational routines and production inputs. The traditional militarism that is built into business rhetoric is in fact toxic to technological progress.

Dominating, monopolizing, conquering, destroying, undermining, and winning are not the well from whence economic growth came.  And given the variety of obnoxious residuals of that attitude that obtain — overly aggressive and put on sales people, corporate government collusion, etc. — it is worth considering a serious reconsidering of the way in which we discuss business.


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