Trade notes

Recently, I came across a quote, from Tocqueville, and it goes like this:

"Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions [because it] loves moderation, delights in compromise, and it is most anxious to avoid anger."

There it is, in brief, a very good reason to like the subject. Interestingly, a recent survey showed that more than half of Filipinos favor international trade. I often wonder, however, if that survey was accurate or, perhaps more to the truth, whether the respondents were being honest in their answers. It's a lot like questions regarding corruption, everybody professes to hate it but won't hesitate to do it if caught speeding in traffic or standing in line for a government permit.

The thing is, if Tocqueville's statement is true and my experience so far in the subject says it to be, then it explains a lot why we're having so much difficulty engaging in world trade in a systematic way. We probably culturally are averse to the demands of the system. Alex Magno, say what you will of him, once wrote an article describing Filipinos as having a not too high regard of institutions, with words to the effect that Filipinos get uncomfortable with the impersonality that strong institutions bring, that established processes impose, and would rather go about things in a personalistic manner.

If Magno is correct and he may very well be, then we really have a lot of problems to overcome. International trade, by its very nature, would require one to be systematic, cold, detached, patient, manipulative, strategic in thinking, and highly rational. It's pretty much like international politics, with goods and currencies as your chess pieces rather than tanks and guns. It also requires strong and effective institutional structures, where decision making is based on a formal and set process, where institutional memory (a must) is developed and kept, and where accountability is clearly identified. The last is quite important also as we can't continue having bureaucrats running around establishing trade policy based on their obsessive unquestioning trust on free trade (or the reverse) and when things go wrong keep mum about it, blame others, and without taking responsibility for the price that our citizens had to pay. It's wrong and encourages sloppy thinking.

But perhaps we like it chaotic. It's the theatricals that spur people here to action. One can actually observe it in our daily life, with people chafing at anything that resembles a set neutral objective process. Our inability to form proper lines for the buses and taxis is a likely indicator of that. Our lack of adherence to promotions based on merit is another. I remember a Chinese basketball coach having once said, after the Chinese national team beat our national team, that "your players are good but rely too much on emotion". I think it's an assessment that applies to a lot of the facets of our life. Problem is, an over reliance of emotion, whether in internal governance, academic purposes, business, or others is an indulgence we can't presently afford.

And hence that is why I like freer trade. To put it in more melodramatic terms, we shape up or we die. There is a time and place for everything and if one wants sentiment and human warmth, you have Christmas parties to do that in. Otherwise, we hunker down, play the game, and do whatever it is that has to be done dispassionately.

Of course, having put it in terms of shape up or die, then it becomes a matter of perspective. You're either an optimist and believe the Filipino can adapt or think that we're too set in our ways and whither away. I, like a lot of people who advocate for freer trade, believe we can do it. That is if we, voluntarily or not, put our minds to it.