“Sharpe on Trade”
At one point in “Sharpe’s Tiger”, the engaging historical page-turner I just finished, Bernard Cornwell’s alpha-male English private hero and a wise old Scottish colonel have the following 1799 exchange while imprisoned in a Southern Indian jail:
“All in all, I think, and judging him by the standards of our own monarch, we should have to give the Tippoo (the autocratic ruler of these parts) fairly high marks.”
“So why the hell are we fighting him, sir?”
McCandless smiled. “Because we want to be here, and he doesn’t want us to be here. Two dogs in a small cage, Sharpe. And if he beats us out of Mysore he’ll bring in the French to chase us out of the rest of India and then we can bid farewell to the best part of our eastern trade. That’s what it’s all about, Sharpe, trade. That’s why you’re fighting here, trade.”
Sharpe grimaced. “It seems a funny thing to be fighting about, sir.”
“Does it?” McCandless seemed surprised. “Not to me, Sharpe. Without trade there’s no wealth, and without wealth there’s no society worth having. Without trade, Private Sharpe, we’d be nothing but beasts in the mud. Trade is indeed worth fighting for, though the good Lord knows we don’t appreciate trade much. We celebrate kings, we honor great men, we admire aristocrats, we applaud actors, we shower gold on portrait painters and we even, sometimes, reward soldiers, but we always despise merchants. But why? It’s the merchant’s wealth that drives the mills, Sharpe; it moves the looms, it keeps the hammers falling, it fills the fleets, it makes the roads, it forges the iron, it grows the wheat, it bakes the bread, and it builds the churches and the cottages and the palaces. Without God and trade we would be nothing.”
Sharpe laughed softly. “Trade never did ‘owt for me, sir.”
“Did it not?” McCandless asked gently. The Colonel smiled. “So what do you think is worth fighting for, Private?”
“Friends, sir. And pride. We have to show that we’re better bastards than the other side.”
“You don’t fight for King or country?”
“I’ve never met the King, sir. Never even seen him.”
“He’s not much to look at, but he’s a decent enough man when he’s not mad…”
Which brings us back to 2008, a time when most company heads – in contrast apparently to many in their firms and the general public at large—fully understand the benefits of trade.
We’re also at moment when lots of people around the world are scared to death of China and India putting them out of work; yet, a few days ago these two nations were precisely the ones that derailed the latest session of world trade organization talks out of fear that free trade would put millions and millions of their own laborers out on the street. To say the obvious, New Delhi and Beijing certainly haven’t forgotten that Sharpe & Co. ultimately won their eastern battles, launching more than a century of Asian economic subservience.
Some commentators depicted the WTO collapse in terms of the coming powers asserting their strength, but in fact they were asserting their respective weaknesses. China, notably, shows signs of losing its competitive edge due to rising costs, shipping expenses, bureaucracy, corruption, etc.
Indeed, ours is not so much a world of competitive and uncompetitive nations, but rather nations with their own respective strengths and weakness – which might sound nice to Ricardo, Smith, et al, but makes for murky politics. In other words, the free trade vision of international economic growth, improved standards of living worldwide, etc., remains, but like Sharpe (who does eventually escape) is still under lock and key.
08-04-2008 7:45 AM