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Protectionists’ Cheap Tricks

In my latest column for AIER I expose three cheap tricks loved by protectionists. Two slices:

The economic and moral case for free trade is rock solid. But as even Adam Smith conceded, because reality is a cauldron of complexity and nuance, there are a tiny handful of theoretically coherent, if mostly practically irrelevant, exceptions to this case. In debates over trade, protectionists relatively seldom use these exceptions (save for their ever-present and tendentious invocations of the need to ensure national security). Instead, protectionists rely with distressing frequency on intellectual cheap tricks. Cheap tricks, fortunately, are easily exposed as such.


A common theme sounded by protectionists — and, today, especially by Donald Trump and others on the political right — is that free-trade policy in America is a gift given to foreigners. And this gift, we are told, is one that Americans can no longer afford. “It’s too bad that high tariffs in the US deny foreigners the benefits they’d get from open access to our rich market,” the story goes “but we must put America first! It’s unpatriotic to deny economic advances to Americans simply to help non-Americans.”

Those who tell this story would have you believe that free traders from Adam Smith forward are “cosmopolitan elites,” who are convinced that the benefits that poor nations gain from trading freely with rich nations outweigh the resulting harm that this trade inflicts on rich nations. Using a crude utilitarian calculus that ignores the value of people’s rootedness in their nations, locales, and familiar ways of life, these elites (the protectionist story goes) then smugly conclude that free trade is justified.

If this take on reality were accurate, the US government’s retreat from free trade would indeed both enrich the great majority of ordinary Americans and be ethically defensible. But this take isn’t accurate; it’s another cheap trick.

The principal case for a policy of free trade has never been one of raising the living standards of poor-country citizens by lowering the living standards of rich-country citizens. While it’s true that free traders recognize that ordinary people in poor countries gain from free trade, it’s emphatically untrue that free traders think that these gains come at the expense of ordinary people in rich countries. From the start, the case for a policy of free trade has focused on the gains that such trade promises to ordinary people in the home country, be it rich or poor.

Gains from trade are mutual, a reality that isn’t changed one iota by imposing a political boundary between the traders. Protectionism therefore strips both foreigners and Americans of these gains. It follows that free trade in America should be embraced by anyone who truly wishes to “put America first!” — indeed, also by anyone who admits to caring only about Americans and not a hoot about non-Americans.

To truly “put America First” requires eliminating all protectionist obstructions on the peaceful commercial choices of American citizens. Ordinary Americans should ask protectionists such as Donald Trump and Josh Hawley just how America is put ‘first’ by US government trade barriers that constrict ordinary Americans’ freedom to spend their incomes as they choose.

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