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The Case for Free Trade Is NOT ‘Globalist’

There is much – very much – to criticize in Oren Cass’s recent cannonade, fired at Law & Liberty, against free trade. These criticisms are forthcoming. But I here want to emphasize one that has already been issued by Pierre Lemieux and, later, Jon Murphy. This criticism is in response to this line in Cass’s essay:

Dig to the bottom of the post-war case for free trade, and one finds not a closely reasoned and unassailable doctrine, but rather a condescending lecture about preferring the global to the national interest. Who was the “we” that had “agreed” to this?

Pierre (in his post) and Jon (in comments on Pierre’s post) criticize Cass for being insufficiently individualist. This criticism is just and correct. My criticism of Cass on this matter is different: Even if one rejects the individualist perspective – even if one embraces the thoroughly collectivist position that “the nation” is a thing with a real interest – the fact of the matter is that the case for free trade is almost always made as if the people of the home country are the only ones who matter. Cass is simply mistaken to assert that the post-war case for free trade is chiefly about helping foreigners, or about promoting “the global” over “the national” interest.

Read the post-war case for free trade found in the works of (to name only a few) Leland Yeager, Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya, Russ Roberts, Dan Griswold, Scott Lincicome, and Doug Irwin. Read also Milton Friedman, Fritz Machlup, Paul Krugman (from when he was still a free trader), and Johan Norberg. This case is centered on the benefits of free trade to the citizens of the home country. In this way the post-WWII case for free trade is the same as the pre-war case for free trade dating back to Adam Smith. Obviously, these free traders recognize that free trade does indeed bestow benefits on foreigners, but I challenge Oren – or anyone else – to find a passage in the works of any well-known economist who supports free trade that says something along these lines: ‘Of course free trade might well make the people – or the workers – of the home country worse off on net economically, but such a policy is nevertheless justified because it enriches foreigners or otherwise promotes the global economy.’

If Oren Cass really believes that the post-war case for free trade is about “preferring the global to the national interest,” he is insufficiently familiar with the literature that he so insistently criticizes. If, instead, he is sufficiently familiar with the literature on trade, he must know that this literature never argues that free trade is, or can be, harmful to the national interest but should nevertheless be pursued in order to promote the global interest. Because I sincerely believe Oren to be an honest scholar, I assume that he presumes to know what the literature says while, in fact, he does not know what it says.

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