≡ Menu

Trump is No Smithian

Here’s a letter to the Financial Post:

Lawrence Solomon argues that Adam Smith would applaud Donald Trump’s trade policies (“Trump’s tariff war has one surprisingly strong supporter: Adam Smith,” Sept. 25). But in doing so, Solomon ignores the bulk and core of what both Smith and Trump say about trade.

Smith’s Wealth of Nations is, above all, a broadside against mercantilism. Trump, though, is nothing if not a mercantilist, as evidenced most clearly by his obsession with the balance of trade and his belief that U.S. trade deficits mean that America is ‘losing’ at trade. In complete contrast, Smith insisted that “Nothing, however, can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade,” and would have regarded such talk by Trump of ‘losing’ at trade as preposterous.

The fact that all that Trump says about trade is unreconstructed mercantilism of the sort that Smith utterly demolished is itself sufficient reason to dismiss Mr. Solomon’s attempt to give Smithian cover to Trumpian protectionism.

Yet Mr. Solomon’s attempt can be dismissed also because he fails to acknowledge that Smith supported a general policy of unilateral free trade – that is, free trade at home regardless of the policies of other governments. It’s true, as Mr. Solomon notes, that Smith identified possible exceptions to this policy. But that’s just what these were for Smith – exceptions to a presumption in support of, and to a policy of, unilateral free trade. Because Trump clearly rejects out of hand a policy of unilateral free trade, it is silly to assert that Trump’s trade policies would receive the strong support of Adam Smith.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


I thank Jonathan Fortier for alerting me to Solomon’s essay.

UPDATE: After reading the above letter, my mentor, Bob Ekelund – who is among the world’s premier historians of economic thought – sent the following e-mail to me (which I share with Bob’s kind permission):

The great overarching theme of the WON is anti-mercantilist.  No scholar of any repute has ever argued otherwise.  The “exceptions” [that Smith identified to a policy of unilateral free trade] are trite asides.