A DC Tale of Mugs, Tariffs, and Oikos

I finally visited Made in D.C. when my mom came to town.  I had been meaning to go for months, but I never get around to fun stuff until company comes and demands it.  We perused the home-grown everything: plants, candles, mugs, jewelry, greeting cards, you name it.  Each table of wares had a corresponding portrait and biography of the creator, who was a D.C. resident.

What first caught my eye was Comarca Lagunera's "Postcards from Washington, D.C."  His work was born from "a self-imposed challenge to gaze at this amazing city, one illustration a week."  My mom bought me a wheelthrown mug made by museum specialist Kate Hardy.  She had, we read, made all her creations at Hollow Work studio in D.C.'s northeast quadrant, a twenty-minute walk from where I live.  I bought a pair of earrings created by Mallory Shelter, the creator and designer of Mallory Shelter Jewelry, who realized her love of mixing gemstones and metals ONLY when she moved to D.C. and trained under a local goldsmith.  We left the shop happy not only with our purchases, but also with ourselves.  We had put some money in our neighbors' pockets.  A fellow D.C.-er could perhaps treat herself to coffee because of us.  We had done some good.

I think this is a sentiment easily felt by many folks, regardless of political persuasion.  But perhaps it ought to be not only felt, but understood – by conservatives especially.  In How to Be a Conservative, published by Bloomsbury in 2014, Sir Roger Scruton wrote that "those things that we truly value are precisely the things, such as life, love and knowledge, that we are reluctant to price.  Value begins where calculation ends, since that which matters most to us is the thing that we will not exchange."  I value my home and the people I share it with; I value my neighborhood and neighbors; and I value my city, the beautiful, big-skied, brick-pathed hub of Washington, D.C.  I naturally value its residents more than I value the residents of Nepal or Tokyo.  The slightly higher price of their goods and wares is not a deterrent to me, because for them, I feel a kinship that transcends the marketplace, a kinship I am not willing to price.

There are libertarians and neo-conservatives who are either incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand this sentiment.  Scruton writes how economists establish their "empire over the human imagination by pricing everything that human beings might want, need, admire or value, so replacing the great questions of human life with the abracadabra of experts."  The question of value – which relates inevitably to questions of life, love, and the idea of the human person – is reduced to a toy at the mercy of equations.  "For the economist," Scruton writes, "value and price are indistinguishable."

Here's an example.  On September 10, I went to the Heritage Foundation's first event in its "Free Markets: The Ethical Economic Choice" speaker series.  Dr. Walter E. Williams gave a (mostly) excellent lecture titled "The Role of Government in a Free Society," which compared the Founders' ideas to progressive liberals' ideas on the role of government.  A conservative myself, I was mostly in agreement with Dr. Williams, until he proposed that the market be free from cumbersome tariffs.  I remembered my excursion to Made in D.C. and wondered how such a market, though free from tariffs and economically efficient in the short term, could account for not only the preference, but the duty I felt for shopping local and eschewing foreign goods.

I therefore asked Dr. Williams if he thought tariffs could ever be justified.  Not a one, said he.  Dr. Williams informed me, and the rest of the audience, that he believes in "peaceable, voluntary exchange."  If Canada imposes heavy tariffs on our dairy products, and America retaliates by imposing heavy tariffs on Canadian wood, then consumers of both nations are simply "getting screwed."  It is as if two people are in a rowboat at sea, he said, and after one person shoots a hole in his end of the boat, the other retaliates by shooting a hole in his side of the boat.  It's "just foolishness."  When exchanges traverse national borders, Dr. Williams would have us believe we are wrong to consider these exchanges instances of countries trading with countries; he would rather have us think these exchanges are individuals trading with individuals.

But conservatives know that none of us is merely an individual.  We are daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, each of us belonging to the certain town or city in which we grew up, the school we attended, the company we work for, the church in which we worship.  We are also citizens of cities; of states; and, yes, of countries.  These privileges of membership confer, along with honors and rights, various duties and responsibilities.  In a deep, real sense, we belong to our country, just as surely as our country belongs to us.

I wished Dr. Williams would have said that, at their best, tariffs benefit and motivate creators like Cormaca Lagunera, Kate Hardy, and Mallory Shelter.  They are not always "just foolishness."  They are a way for governments to distinguish and favor creators of the homeland.  There are things in our marketplace that have been made by people we know and love; there are things in our marketplace that have been made by people with whom we share a home.  There are also those things that have been made by people far away from us, who do not live like us, think like us, or care for us.  It is more than understandable for a government to want its own people to do well in their own marketplaces, and if such a government decides to do what it can to benefit the endeavors of its own people and not the endeavors of foreigners, who will cast the first stone?  Dr. Williams, apparently.

Levying a tariff is wrongly conceived as a purposeless way to burden the high-functioning, high-power consumer.  It is rightly conceived as a way of uniting, motivating, and showing patriotic preference for one's own.  And why not?  We are animated, Scruton writes, by "oikophilia: the love of oikos, which means not only the home but the people contained in it."  I make life decisions based not merely on convenience, low cost, and what is good for me, but also on reality, beauty, and what is good for everyone around me.  This is the way I act in all realms of life, including the marketplace.

Economists, who see no factors in the equation of human action except minimum input and maximum output, can never hope to understand the oikos to which their economics owes its Greek etymology – oîkos, "house," and némō, "distribute, allocate."  Ironically, they are the poorer for it.  I sip my coffee from my forty-dollar wheelthrown mug, knowing that it connects me to a life both of and beyond my own.  Economists, I gather, sip their coffee from cheap, foreign, factory-made cups, complaining about politics and thinking only of themselves.

I finally visited Made in D.C. when my mom came to town.  I had been meaning to go for months, but I never get around to fun stuff until company comes and demands it.  We perused the home-grown everything: plants, candles, mugs, jewelry, greeting cards, you name it.  Each table of wares had a corresponding portrait and biography of the creator, who was a D.C. resident.

What first caught my eye was Comarca Lagunera's "Postcards from Washington, D.C."  His work was born from "a self-imposed challenge to gaze at this amazing city, one illustration a week."  My mom bought me a wheelthrown mug made by museum specialist Kate Hardy.  She had, we read, made all her creations at Hollow Work studio in D.C.'s northeast quadrant, a twenty-minute walk from where I live.  I bought a pair of earrings created by Mallory Shelter, the creator and designer of Mallory Shelter Jewelry, who realized her love of mixing gemstones and metals ONLY when she moved to D.C. and trained under a local goldsmith.  We left the shop happy not only with our purchases, but also with ourselves.  We had put some money in our neighbors' pockets.  A fellow D.C.-er could perhaps treat herself to coffee because of us.  We had done some good.

I think this is a sentiment easily felt by many folks, regardless of political persuasion.  But perhaps it ought to be not only felt, but understood – by conservatives especially.  In How to Be a Conservative, published by Bloomsbury in 2014, Sir Roger Scruton wrote that "those things that we truly value are precisely the things, such as life, love and knowledge, that we are reluctant to price.  Value begins where calculation ends, since that which matters most to us is the thing that we will not exchange."  I value my home and the people I share it with; I value my neighborhood and neighbors; and I value my city, the beautiful, big-skied, brick-pathed hub of Washington, D.C.  I naturally value its residents more than I value the residents of Nepal or Tokyo.  The slightly higher price of their goods and wares is not a deterrent to me, because for them, I feel a kinship that transcends the marketplace, a kinship I am not willing to price.

There are libertarians and neo-conservatives who are either incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand this sentiment.  Scruton writes how economists establish their "empire over the human imagination by pricing everything that human beings might want, need, admire or value, so replacing the great questions of human life with the abracadabra of experts."  The question of value – which relates inevitably to questions of life, love, and the idea of the human person – is reduced to a toy at the mercy of equations.  "For the economist," Scruton writes, "value and price are indistinguishable."

Here's an example.  On September 10, I went to the Heritage Foundation's first event in its "Free Markets: The Ethical Economic Choice" speaker series.  Dr. Walter E. Williams gave a (mostly) excellent lecture titled "The Role of Government in a Free Society," which compared the Founders' ideas to progressive liberals' ideas on the role of government.  A conservative myself, I was mostly in agreement with Dr. Williams, until he proposed that the market be free from cumbersome tariffs.  I remembered my excursion to Made in D.C. and wondered how such a market, though free from tariffs and economically efficient in the short term, could account for not only the preference, but the duty I felt for shopping local and eschewing foreign goods.

I therefore asked Dr. Williams if he thought tariffs could ever be justified.  Not a one, said he.  Dr. Williams informed me, and the rest of the audience, that he believes in "peaceable, voluntary exchange."  If Canada imposes heavy tariffs on our dairy products, and America retaliates by imposing heavy tariffs on Canadian wood, then consumers of both nations are simply "getting screwed."  It is as if two people are in a rowboat at sea, he said, and after one person shoots a hole in his end of the boat, the other retaliates by shooting a hole in his side of the boat.  It's "just foolishness."  When exchanges traverse national borders, Dr. Williams would have us believe we are wrong to consider these exchanges instances of countries trading with countries; he would rather have us think these exchanges are individuals trading with individuals.

But conservatives know that none of us is merely an individual.  We are daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, each of us belonging to the certain town or city in which we grew up, the school we attended, the company we work for, the church in which we worship.  We are also citizens of cities; of states; and, yes, of countries.  These privileges of membership confer, along with honors and rights, various duties and responsibilities.  In a deep, real sense, we belong to our country, just as surely as our country belongs to us.

I wished Dr. Williams would have said that, at their best, tariffs benefit and motivate creators like Cormaca Lagunera, Kate Hardy, and Mallory Shelter.  They are not always "just foolishness."  They are a way for governments to distinguish and favor creators of the homeland.  There are things in our marketplace that have been made by people we know and love; there are things in our marketplace that have been made by people with whom we share a home.  There are also those things that have been made by people far away from us, who do not live like us, think like us, or care for us.  It is more than understandable for a government to want its own people to do well in their own marketplaces, and if such a government decides to do what it can to benefit the endeavors of its own people and not the endeavors of foreigners, who will cast the first stone?  Dr. Williams, apparently.

Levying a tariff is wrongly conceived as a purposeless way to burden the high-functioning, high-power consumer.  It is rightly conceived as a way of uniting, motivating, and showing patriotic preference for one's own.  And why not?  We are animated, Scruton writes, by "oikophilia: the love of oikos, which means not only the home but the people contained in it."  I make life decisions based not merely on convenience, low cost, and what is good for me, but also on reality, beauty, and what is good for everyone around me.  This is the way I act in all realms of life, including the marketplace.

Economists, who see no factors in the equation of human action except minimum input and maximum output, can never hope to understand the oikos to which their economics owes its Greek etymology – oîkos, "house," and némō, "distribute, allocate."  Ironically, they are the poorer for it.  I sip my coffee from my forty-dollar wheelthrown mug, knowing that it connects me to a life both of and beyond my own.  Economists, I gather, sip their coffee from cheap, foreign, factory-made cups, complaining about politics and thinking only of themselves.