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On the Challenges Facing Free Traders

In a post to an active listserve of which I’m a member, my friend Iain Murray appropriately praised Dan Hannan’s recent, brilliant video in support of free trade – and also expressed understandable dismay at the many woeful comments on that video. Iain wrote:

The comments are almost uniformly negative, either calling it naïve or saying “yes, but…” and what comes after the “but” simply contradicts any argument for free trade.

This suggests to me we need to rework our messaging, as Dan is one of our most effective communicators.

I responded to Iain’s post with the following (slightly modified from the original):


I agree that Dan Hannan’s video is superb, and that the comments in response to it are woeful.

I doubt very seriously, though, that the problem is lack of effective messaging for free trade. Adam Smith did so brilliantly. Bastiat did so even more so. We’ve also had Richard Cobden, Henry George, William Graham Sumner, Edwin Cannan, Lionel Robbins, Fritz Machlup, Gottfried Haberler, and Milton Friedman – all masters at communicating, often to the general public, the case for free trade. More recently we’ve had communicators of near-equal skill and energy in the likes of Leland Yeager, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Doug Irwin, Deirdre McCloskey, Arvind Panagariya, Scott Lincicome, Russ Roberts, Colin Grabow, Dan Griswold, and (until he became a pastor for progressivism) Paul Krugman who creatively and with great frequency excel at making powerful cases for free trade.

While it’s always advisable to continue to search for yet better ways to make the case for free trade, it’s difficult for me to believe that there’s some manner of communication or some line of argument to use to support free trade that has not by now been tried a million times over.

Near the end of his video Dan Hannan identified part of the problem: our brains aren’t evolved to trust strangers or to grasp spontaneous order. Combine the resulting ‘natural’ hostility to free trade with the enormous gains that producer groups win if they get tariff protection, and a formidable bootleggers and Baptists coalition emerges. These combined forces have always been the ones that we free traders have fought; they will always be the forces that we fight. And they’ll never, ever be vanquished.

But your own native country managed to become (in Frank Trentmann’s apt words) “a free-trade nation” for nearly a century. We’re highly unlikely ever, even for a short stretch of time, to ‘win’ in the sense of eliminating all protective trade restrictions. But surely if we keep up the fight we’ll keep the average height and extent of trade barriers lower than they would be if we fight less diligently.

The late Bob Tollison was fond of saying that “we’re all part of the equilibrium” – and no one today does more to tilt the equilibrium more against the protectionists than does Dan Hannan.


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