Do Not Let the Perfect Devour the Good

by Don Boudreaux on January 30, 2019

in Reality Is Not Optional, Trade

In my latest article for AIER, I explain why a principled commitment to a policy of unilateral free trade does not preclude someone (such as myself) from supporting trade agreements even when (as is always the case) those agreements do not establish the ideal of completely free trade. A slice:

My ideal is for each government to immediately abolish all tariffs and other trade restrictions, regardless of what any other government does or doesn’t do. That is, I fully support a policy of unilateral free trade. Such a policy is the libertarian ideal.

This fact, though, does not render this ideal politically feasible. In my view (which is hardly controversial), the U.S. government will not any time soon unilaterally abolish all tariffs and other trade restraints. I call on it to do so. I will continue to call on it to do so. But a policy of unilateral free trade is simply not now in the cards.

So what’s the alternative?

One alternative to the degree of protectionism currently in place is to live with this degree of protectionism. But what if a second alternative is available — a second alternative under which the degree of protectionism is lowered but not reduced to zero?

By my lights, if the only feasible choice is between, on the one hand, the current degree of protectionism and, on the other hand, lowered but not eliminated protectionism, the latter option is plainly preferable. Indeed, by libertarian standards it is unethical not to support this second option. The reason is that failure to support this second option is, in effect, to support the first option — that is, to support higher trade restrictions.

Each and every trade agreement fails to make trade as free as possible. Each such agreement contains a nest of provisions that, when judged against a standard of perfection, is unacceptable.

But because in the U.S. a policy of unilateral free trade is currently politically infeasible — and because trade agreements have a solid record of making trade freer (although never completely free) — I support trade agreements even as I recognize their flaws.

I would love nothing more than to discover that a policy of unilateral free trade is politically possible. Were I to find myself in this happy world, I would no longer support trade agreements, for then the better option would indeed be the ideal: unilateral free trade. But until I find myself in this happy world, I’ll continue to support trade agreements that make trade freer despite the unfortunate fact that they don’t make trade fully free.


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