Reciprocity and protectionism: Where does that leave the ‘golden rule’?

What does the golden rule of treating others as we would wish to be treated mean in today's society? (Photo by Getty Images)

If this column were about trade agreements, it would have been titled, “Economics of Reciprocity and Protectionism.”

These terms have ethical and economic meanings.

The ethics of reciprocity concerns “The Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. All major religions and philosophies have some articulation or variant of the rule.

Among the first to articulate the ethical standard was Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC), writing in the ancient book Analects: Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you (15:23).

In western society, many of us associate the Golden Rule with Jesus of Nazareth: Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31).

There are subtle differences between the two tenets, with the latter suggesting we can be grateful or generous to others because we wish others to treat us similarly.

Journalism embraces the Confucian model in its standard of “minimize harm.”

“Protectionism” in ethics is associated with human vs. non-human rights. Do we protect our own species at all costs, even if it increasingly undermines animals and the environment? One protectionism study theorizes that morality should be consistent in its application to “all other life forms,” not just people.

In this sense, the Golden Rule would be revised accordingly: Treat all life as we wish to be treated, with dignity and respect.

Economic definitions differ significantly. Perhaps the most ardent supporter of tariffs to protect U.S. interests was President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901). He even kept two pet opossums named Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity. As the Presidential Pet Museum notes, Harrison “gave the marsupials their weighty names” because the GOP platform was: “Protection and reciprocity are twin measures of Republican policy and go hand-in-hand.”

The trade definition of “reciprocity” involves the practice “of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, especially privileges granted by one country or organization to another.”

The near synonym “quid pro quo” involves “a favor or advantage granted in return for something.”

As you might imagine, both have been linked to President Trump. Writing about international agreements, The Economist published an article with this title—“Donald Trump insists on trade reciprocity. But what kind?”—adding this subtitle: “Quid pro quo does not necessarily mean like-for-like tariffs, as all trade negotiators know.”

The Washington Post says “reciprocity” is Trump’s favorite word: “What he means by ‘reciprocity’ is ‘fair trade’ instead of free trade, by using tariffs to retaliate against any trade barriers imposed by other countries.”

A kinder version of reciprocity dates back to one of America’s first agreements, the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France. The preamble states that commercial relations between the two countries should be based on “the most perfect equality and reciprocity, and by carefully avoiding all those burdensome preferences which are usually sources of debate, embarrassment, and discontent.”

To be fair, the debate about economic reciprocity is as old as our Republic and even divided George Washington’s administration. Alexander Hamilton sought modest import duties without disruption to replenish the treasury. A trade war with Britain could be costly. Jefferson and Madison believed trade policy could be weaponized to aright what they saw as Britain’s “grossly unfair discrimination” against the fledging United States.

You can substitute China for Britain and have the same trade argument today.

What if ethical definitions for “reciprocity” became synonymous with economic definitions?

Social theorist Jeremy Rifkin has indirectly promoted this idea. He documents how empathy—a concept rooted in the Golden Rule—extends our sensibilities beyond blood ties, religious affiliations and nation states. He foresees a time when humans will broaden our “loyalties and identities … allowing us to connect our empathy to the human race writ large in a single biosphere.”

No matter how we feel about biospheres, animal rights and trade agreements, conscientious people sometimes wonder whether society still embraces the ethics of reciprocity — treating others as we wish to be treated. We live in divisive times, which the coronavirus has exacerbated. Communication technologies, especially social media, connect us globally but also do as much harm as good in how we view and empathize with each other.

America is founded on unity, as evidenced by the motto, e pluribus unum — “one from many parts” —inscribed on the 1776 Great Seal of the United States.

We can live up to the intent of that motto by extending our empathy to all whom we encounter online and face to face, when social distancing ends.

Likewise, journalism can live up to its constitutional duty by consistently heeding the Confucian model of minimizing harm.

What if we treated economic terms in The Treaty of Amity and Commerce as ethical ones, striving for “the most perfect equality and reciprocity” in all of our interactions by carefully avoiding burdensome “sources of debate, embarrassment, and discontent”?

Perhaps, if all of us did our part, we would truly be one out of many and more fully realize the utility and universality of the Golden Rule.