Frankly Foolish

by Don Boudreaux on November 28, 2004

in Trade

Thomas Frank is the eloquent and passionate author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? An unapologetic statist, he thinks that free markets are "mad" and that market-friendly policies help only the rich and harm ordinary working and poor people.

In today’s New York Times Book Review Frank offers his assessment of several books, one of which is Myths of Free Trade by Sherrod Brown. Frank praises this protectionist tome:

In ”Myths of Free Trade” he [Brown] describes the role that the false religion of unregulated free trade has had in reopening the class divide, and also what we might do about it. For him the word ”elite” refers not to someone who likes books, but to the industry lobbyists whose planes clogged National Airport and whose gifts inundated Capitol Hill during the debate over Nafta. Brown could easily have taken the anti-intellectual route to populism since, as he points out, virtually the entire pundit class, regardless of party, routinely supports free-trade agreements (and just as routinely depicts opponents as ”selling out the poor” or Luddites). The real battle he lays out is not between salt-of-the-earth folks and effete know-it-alls, or between tolerant Metro and screeching Retro: it is between all of us and the corporate power that today bombards labor and environment from the ideological heights of free trade. Deregulate, privatize and let the invisible hand have its way, this power tells us now, and everything will be just fine for everybody. But of course it has never been that simple. ”It has been a 100-year battle between the privileged and the rest of us,” Brown reminds us. ”We took on oil and chemical companies to enact clean air and safe drinking water laws,” he adds. ”We fought off Wall Street bankers to create Social Security. We battled entrenched business interests to enact women’s and civil rights, protections for the disabled and prohibitions on child labor. We fought for all of it. Every bit of progress made in the struggle for economic and social justice came over the opposition of society’s most privileged and most powerful.” As this bright new day of the free-trade faith threatens to take it all apart, Brown invites us to look where we might just be going.

Look past Rep. Brown’s self-congratulatory version of history and focus on Thomas Frank’s utterly shallow dismissal of the case for free trade.

Here’s a letter on Frank that I sent earlier today to the New York Times Book Review:

To the Editor:

Thomas Frank besmirches the case for free trade ("American Psyche," Nov. 28th). First, he assumes that free trade is largely and only pro-business and, hence, that it is forced on us by "corporate power" and "industry lobbyists." Not so. Show me a tariff and I’ll show you corporations lobbying for it. Show me a tariff cut and I’ll show you corporations that fought the cut as well as consumers paying lower prices and workers in jobs that would have been otherwise impossible.

Second, he smears free traders as being devotees of a "false religion" guided by "faith." So charged, this free trader challenges Frank to a public debate – face to face, or in writing – on the merits of free trade versus protectionism. I promise to use, not faith, but only reasoned arguments and abundant empirical evidence. Contrary to Frank’s assertion, the preachers of false religion are the protectionists who, lacking evidence and coherent arguments, faithfully proclaim that protecting domestic suppliers from foreign competition is key to economic salvation.

Sincerely,

Donald J. Boudreaux

Addendum: Frank describes Sherrod Brown as "a liberal of the old school." Wrong. Brown is a "liberal" only in the distorted, modern Anglo-American sense. Genuine ‘old school’ liberals – such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Acton – rejected nationalism and understood that trade across borders not only enhances prosperity but encourages peace.

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