Individualism, Value and Economic Protectionism

Value is not all things to all people. Tools such as money create a framework of empirical worth that acts as a mediating agent so trade can be effortlessly conducted between motivated parties, but the idea that a dollar is worth the same amount regardless of whether it is used in Seattle, Washington or Boston, Massachusetts is only one aspect of the way in which value operates in society.

Value can be intrinsic to a good or extrinsic. The former—the most common way in which we attribute value to currency—remains relatively stable, regardless of the conditions in which it is used. It is this that facilitates trade on a global level. The latter, however, is more a product of context and reflects the needs of the individual who is utilizing currency. For example, suppose a person has $10. If they haven’t eaten all day, a $5 sandwich is probably worth more than an $8 paperback book, even though, going by the intrinsic value of the dollar, the amount of goods in the book make it more valuable than the sandwich. In this example, context plays an integral role in shaping value: it fluctuates over time and in response to the changing needs and priorities of the individual.

The epistemological values held by the person who instigates various economic transactions are also a factor. Dollar amounts may, at certain times, take a back seat to a desire to promote one’s ideas through one’s purchasing power. For instance, given the choice of two books—one a hardback on a $5 discount rack by an author whom the perspective purchaser only marginally likes, and the other a $10 paperback by an author he or she admires—the more expensive good can be more valuable, even though the price tag says otherwise, because more pleasure comes from reading something written by someone with like values. In this case, value is not reflective of currency, but of more esoteric spiritual factors, unique to a person’s affinities.

Discounts and sales also introduce yet another meaning of value because they alter the relationship between a dollar and good. The price of a discounted good is no longer primarily a measure reflecting the value of the materials that makeup whatever one is purchasing, but instead are a measure of efficiency: the value of a dollar can be extended by looking for discounts that make limited means go further.

All this ought to lead to one conclusion: individual reason plays a fundamental role to understanding the ways in which value operates in society. Even when dealing with social constructs (because, fundamentally, this is what a dollar is), private and individual judgments can still override them. The individual makes a cost-benefit analysis about the monetary value of a dollar and whether the expected utility of a good, whether this utility be material or spiritual, brings enough of a return to justify the price affixed to it. Only if the exchange seems fair is that dollar spent: ultimately, the individual’s sense of value is superimposed even over the value of currency.

This same concept holds true for political and social values. Take the primacy of liberality in American society: there is no natural force that has made this the pinnacle of value. It is not a conservative sense of duty that compels American citizens and politicians to obey the tenets of liberality in social and political institutions. Most individuals have, at some point in their lives, consider the system and recognized, to varying degrees, it is a force for good. Obviously, the system is not perfect, but a large part of the reason it has retained its supremacy is because liberality fosters pluralism: it gives individuals the space to pursue personal conceptions of “good” and “bad,” even though many of these conclusions are directly contradictory. When enough people have a similar belief in the merit of an idea or an institution, it gains influence and is buoyed to a place of primacy in society.

But, in order for this to happen, individuals have to first engage in a process of evaluation, which gives lie to the idea that things held in common, or publicly if we’re talking politics, are worth more than things held privately. What is valued is first valued privately. Mass support for an idea or an institution is an expression of individual’s assenting judgment as to the value of that thing; its degree of worth is commensurate to the number of people who express admiration or support for it. It has no life beyond that which it is given by a group. And a group is only an expression of its constituent members; it has no life of its own. A single person’s defection from a group changes its makeup. The “common good” is not some autonomous being with life of its own, which has the power to influence individuals. Rather, what is good to the common is a reflection of a group agreeing on one particular point, and that point only. If an individual does move into agreement with the group, it is a reflection of their autonomous rational process, of having considered the relative arguments behind an idea or institution and founding them meritorious. The individual is the mover, not the group.

In short: the individual retains supremacy. Individual will and discretion are the primary motive power in life, both in regards to private affairs and what is considered “public property.”

This conclusion is inescapable and goes a long way towards debunking the pseudo-reason behind economic protectionism. Protectionist rhetoric attempts to attribute value to a national consensus of what constitutes “good” and “bad.” These judgments are based on what is good for the nation and are used to attempt to shame individual actors who look not to national interests but to what is cast as their own petty self-interest. This decision then becomes “unpatriotic” in the eyes of the economic nationalists because, as they claim ownership of constitutive members of the polity, it is a threat to the welfare of the nation of the whole.

This behavior is illustrated perfectly in the way the Trump administration has treated motorcycle icon Harley-Davidson. So long as Harley-Davidson behaved in a way that coincided with the administration’s quasi-mercantilist idea that the value of goods is tied to their nation of origin, Trump praised them as an American icon. As soon as the president’s tariffs threatened the company, which then announced, to protect the financial security of its company, it would be moving production overseas, Trump began to denounce Harley. Even though nothing substantive about their product had changed in terms of the quality of the final product, the simple act of moving their base of operations was enough to upend the value of their product and abrogate their status as an American icon.

But these categorizations overstep the mark. Value is not a collective entity; it simply reflects a consensus view of individuals who retain autonomy over their process for making value-judgments. Value also cannot be divorced from production: it is not only the quality of a good that would-be consumers consider when they make a purchase, but the conduct surrounding the production of the good. Trump’s characterization of Harley as betraying its customers does not do this because his characterization is not based on the company’s decision-making process, but his own projections. He condemns Harley for acting in a manner that, according to his factually inaccurate nationalist narrative, attributes anti-patriotic movements to the company. But it is the company’s decision that is rooted in real values, not the president’s. Harley’s stated reason for moving production is in order to be able to continue to produce their good at a reasonable price: it is motivated by a desire to still serve their consumers with a good product for a good value. The president’s attempt to impose his collectivized definition of value, with reference to the nation as a whole, is hampered by the harm his policies do to the company. Because any collective entity is a reflection of its constituent members—the whole cannot override any one element—anything that does harm to one member does harm to the whole. His definition of value, then, because it ignores the individual imperative, is not only false, but politically damaging as it erodes the ability of individuals to make value-judgments for themselves.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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