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Trump, Tariffs, and Economic Honor: The Trade War as a Form of Retributive Violence

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Tags Protectionism and Free Trade

08/21/2018

President Trump’s trade war doesn’t seem to be going well. Corporations have already left the United States, and our agricultural sector is already beginning to feel economic strain. However, despite these and potentially more disastrous consequences, the president’s actions are still receiving widespread support, and the cry among his supporters remains “trust Trump!”

A clue to the origins of the trade war’s support can be seen in a recent Newsweek article where a soybean farmer who “claimed that [Trump’s] trade policies were negatively impacting [his] bottom lines” was asked “how far he’d go” in his continued support of the president’s policy, despite the personal consequences. The farmer responded “the Scottish in me says, to the death.” This response suggests that support for the president’s trade policies may be rooted in what social psychology calls honor ideology.

Honor Ideology and the Culture of Honor

The psychological construct of honor emerged from the study of the Scots and their descendants who settled the 18th-century American frontier, the same people referenced by the soybean farmer. Initially focused on the American South, the study of honor has since expanded to see honor as a more universal phenomenon, evolving under certain conditions, namely (1) a harsh, resource-scarce environment and (2) a lack of meaningful law enforcement. In such circumstances, individuals must often ensure their own survival against threats to their resources by maintaining an “honorable” reputation.

Here, the word “honorable” takes on a different meaning than it might have in the popular mindset. In social psychology, to be known as “honorable” means to be perceived as strong, to be well-regarded by peers, and most of all, to be known as someone who it is very, very dangerous to cross. Indeed, one of the most fundamental parts of an honor culture, and its resulting ideology, is what is known as the lex talionis, or “rule of retribution,” a willingness and obligation to risk life and well-being in the defense of one’s honor. This is because in an honor culture, reputation is fundamental to survival. Without an honorable reputation, you and your family may be seen as vulnerable and open to theft or assault. Thus, honor endorsers are notoriously ruthless in the defense of their reputation, being willing to respond to even minor slights with as much ferocity as they might an actual assault.

Like many cultural adaptations, honor ideology has outlived the circumstances of its origin. However, though the lawless frontier is long gone, the lex talionis remains fundamental to cultures of honor, producing a number of detrimental outcomes, including higher rates of homicide, domestic abuse, and suicide. The modern honor endorser remains as willing as ever to respond to threats via the lex talionis.

Honor and Politics

Honor’s focus on the survival of oneself and one’s family lends it a collective focus which has political consequences. When collective identities, like nationality, are perceived as beneficial to survival (e.g., having a feeling of safety or an advantage due to one’s nationality), then collective and personal identities may merge in what is called “identity fusion.” In an honor culture, this fused identity will be defended and maintained as much as the personal one. This fusion can be hard to reverse, even when part of the collective identity, e.g., the national government, becomes a threat to personal well-being or safety.

Thus, honor endorsement often predicts support for national action that follows the lex talionis. If national reputation or safety (i.e., national honor) is threatened or slighted, then the only possible response is forceful retaliation, no matter the consequences. Research has shown how honor endorsement predicts support for violent retribution in response to national threats like terrorism and illegal immigration. It is likely that the support for President Trump’s trade war, even in the face of potential economic harm, shares a similar root in the culture of honor.

Honor Ideology and the Trade War

President Trump’s rhetoric has always contained a great deal of honor related content, as has been remarked on even before the 2016 election. Many of his campaign promises revolved around the importance of making America respected, even feared, by making us stronger. Much of the President’s rhetoric surrounding the trade war follows this pattern, such as in this meeting with governors and members of Congress. The president constantly claims we’ve been “taken advantage of” economically, and says that the only way for us to have free trade is through the enactment of tariffs. In other words, in order to have free trade, we must first appear “strong” as a nation by retributively punishing those who have “wronged” us, even though this is precisely the opposite of free trade. This is functionally the same as an honor culture’s belief that the only way to be truly safe is to “get revenge” despite any and all possible dangers.

Many of the president’s supporters also defend the trade war using the language of honor ideology. In an interview with ABC, Senator Lindsey Graham said “the only way you’ll get China to change is make them pay a price and our farming communities [are] on the front lines, but we’ve got to stick with it.” This is the lex talionis talking, claiming we can’t act as we might prefer until we level the playing field again via retribution. In the 18th century, that retribution might take the form of a duel. In the 21st century, however, honor seems to demand economic violence, like tariffs.

Beyond Retaliation

It is important to note that honor ideology is not a sign of lesser intelligence, lesser societal evolution, lesser morality, or indeed, any sort of inherent flaw in those who subscribe to it. Like all cultural adaptations, honor ideology evolved as an effective remedy to the circumstances of its time. Honor cultures can even have positive results, producing loyalty, hospitality, politeness, and commitment to family in many cases. However, it is important for us to recognize when some features of an adaptation should and should not be applied. Honor is rarely about making things “better.” Rather than truly fixing a situation, honor is about restoring reputation and perception in the eyes of others. It can be ruthless and single-minded, and is not the sort of mindset which leads to harmonious outcomes, especially not in economics, where mutually beneficial exchange is fundamental to trade.

More qualified people than I can remark on the specifics of why tariffs are economically unsound and why free trade is the best option. Indeed, some, like Senator Ben Sasse, have already done this, both in the public sphere and to President Trump himself. However, I do believe I can confidently state that if we allow honor ideology to dictate our economic policy, if we continue this trade war in the spirit of lex talionis, we may indeed defend our national reputation for strength, but will gain little else.

Aaron Pomerantz, M.S. is a social psychologist currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Oklahoma. His work has been published in Political Psychology, Newsweek, and the Foundation for Economic Education, among others. His research interests include the study of honor culture, aggression, and political ideology. He is also one of the hosts of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Snarkiness," an economics and psychology podcast.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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