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An Open Letter to P.M. Sunak

My latest column for AIER is an open letter to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging him to honor Britain’s great liberal tradition of free trade by pursuing a policy of unilateral free trade. A slice:

Such a move would also be sound ethically. Every protectionist measure infringes on the freedom of ordinary men and women to spend their incomes as they choose. This infringement is unjust if only because it is done to artificially enrich some individuals at the expense of their fellow citizens. This coerced transfer of income would be unethical regardless of the size of the gains bestowed on the privileged interest groups compared to the size of the losses imposed on the masses. Yet economics makes clear that the losses inflicted on the masses are larger than are the gains unfairly seized by the interest groups.

Protectionism isn’t only unethical; insofar as its purpose is to enrich the country as a whole, it’s also economically stupid.

As you are no doubt aware, the economic and ethical case for free trade was forged most solidly in your country. To this day, no more powerful case against protectionism exists than is found in Adam Smith’s 1776 Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. David Ricardo’s explanation, in 1817, of the principle of comparative advantage only further reinforced Smith’s case for free trade. From David Hume and Smith through Harriet Martineau, Richard Cobden, John Bright, William Gladstone, Edwin Cannan, Winston Churchill, and, today, Daniel Hannan, your country has blessed the world with some of the most insightful and eloquent champions of free trade.

And the free trade that these men and women championed was unilateral free trade. They advocated that each government remove protective trade restrictions, regardless of the economic or trade policies pursued by other governments.

For the sake of the citizens of your country, I urge you to travel this same wise path. Advocate and work for a removal of all protective barriers erected by the British government without concern for whether governments in the U.S. and elsewhere follow suit. Were you to pursue a policy of unilateral free trade, you would honor – by following it – Britain’s glorious free-trade tradition.

Inspired largely by the principled advocacy of Cobden, Bright, and their Anti-Corn Law League, Prime Minister Robert Peel (joined by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords) courageously supported what remains to this day the single most significant move, both substantively and symbolically, toward free trade ever done by any government – namely, the repeal of the corn laws. In June of 1846 Parliament voted to remove these high tariffs on grain imports unilaterally. It did not do so in exchange for similar tariff reductions abroad; it did so exclusively for the benefit of the British people.

As both a citizen and resident of America, my own narrow interest would likely be better served by your refusal to lower British trade barriers except in exchange for the U.S. government’s lowering its trade barriers. I most certainly want my government to lower the barriers that it obnoxiously erects against my and my fellow Americans’ trade with non-Americans. And so your committing to allow the British people to enjoy the fruits of freer trade only on the condition that the U.S. government allow Americans also to enjoy these fruits is more likely than would your unilateral lowering of trade barriers to entice my government to let me trade more freely.