UPDATE, 3/25: In response to some accurate criticism, I have pulled back some of the arguments made in the below post; my revised argument can be found here.
Over the last few weeks, some of my ordinary fellows – and especially E.D. – have been making a case against free trade and globalism while making the case for protectionism, with the support of some noteworthy communitarians. Scott has had some excellent responses, but the free traders among us haven’t directly addressed the fundamental objections raised in favor of protectionism.
The roots of the arguments against free trade and globalization seem to be that they make war more rather than less likely because it allows countries to use trade as a weapon that can only be combatted with force, that outsourcing kills local communities and cultures regardless of whether it creates greater growth on the aggregate, and that access to various cheap goods leads to a consumerism that devalues the community. In the above-linked post, James Matthew Wilson expresses this attitude in his argument that free traders falsely assume:
“the specific is dangerous, the particular a menace, the exclusive “unfair.” Local government is a recipe for injustice; local customs are benighted; local attachments are “clannish” and violent; local economies are inefficient, and their defenders “protectionist.” These items lead to more expansive ones directed against the particularities intrinsic to authority: religion endangers public order because it makes specific claims about the identity of truth and goodness; families oppress, because they make specific claims about the role of individual persons; and above all nations and nation-states confine the moral imaginations of their people and consequently serve as the necessary ingredients for war.”
Along these same lines, Daniel Larison argues that free trade leads inexorably towards the creation of uniformity of government around the globe, and thus undermines national sovereignty.
I don’t think these arguments are quite right. To the extent that the criticism is that free trade ultimately leads to greater uniformity of regulation across international boundaries, there is probably much truth in that belief. In fact, it’s probably a truism that free trade demands a certain degree of uniformity of regulation since it requires nations to adopt more or less identical trade policies. The problem with this line of argument is that it confuses culture and governance, localism and nationalism. It is culture and localism about which Front Porch Republicans are concerned about protecting.
In other words, for the localist, protecting American political sovereignty is important only insofar as it results in the protection of local culture and governance.* But a look at American history demonstrates that free trade has proven the best way of protecting local culture and preventing a national monoculture.
The arguments against free trade ignore that free trade amongst the American states has existed since the Founding, even as they note (correctly) that the federal government imposed high tariffs for over a century after the Founding. Thus, according to the anti-free trade argument, free trade amongst the individual states should have created a national monoculture. That is not what has happened though – to be sure, the differences amongst state governments are often quite slight, although differences most definitely exist. But how similar, really, are the important aspects of community and culture in Utah and New York City, or Alabama and New Jersey, or Ohio and Texas, etc.? The sports that are most popular in Boston are a far cry from the sports that are most popular in Texas, which are in turn a far cry from the sports that are most popular in Minnesota. The food of upstate New York is distinctly different from the food of the Mississippi Delta, which is distinctly different from the food of the American Southwest. And the sounds of Pat Green are nothing like the sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers which are nothing like the sounds of Billy Joel, yet all of them rely heavily on love of their home region. All of which says nothing of the cultural differences that can exist even within a given state.
Instead, I would argue that it is protectionism, with its one-size-fits-all nature that most threatens to create a sort of monoculture to which the only solution is expansionism. Protectionism on a federal level (which is the only level at which it can take place) forces us to rely ever-more heavily on producers in other areas within a limited realm. It is difficult for a culture to maintain its identity when it must rely on everything it cannot produce itself from a highly limited number of other cultures – the more the Northeast must rely on the Midwest for not only some agricultural products, but also for its cars, its clothes, etc., the more the Northeast will become like the Midwest – and vice versa. Or, to take another example, the more the Scots are forced to rely on the English for that which they cannot produce themselves, the more the Scots stop being Scots – and vice versa. Therefore, the only way to protect the local becomes to expand the territory that is subject to the protectionism.
Globalization and free trade counteract this problem, allowing a distinct culture to rely on so many different other cultures for what they produce that they don’t become like any one culture, but instead are able to choose the producer for any given item that most comports with their cultural values. This isn’t to say that some cultures don’t die off due to free trade and globalization – but is a culture that can’t appeal enough to its own members to maintain their support truly worth protecting at the likely expense of another culture?
By the same token, protectionism ignores the effect that it can itself have on local cultures within its jurisdiction. Specifically, it ignores that those industries that can compete on an international scale will be the subjects of retaliatory tariffs and subsidies. So whatever jobs may be saved by forcing residents of Massachussetts to buy vehicles made in Michigan are likely to be lost when other countries impose tariffs on other items.
Meanwhile, there is another issue here. If a particular industry is so incredibly important to a region or culture, then why can’t that region or culture continue participating in that industry once the primary corporation leaves? Isn’t this, after all, what the whole “Buy Local” movement is about? Why must we only “make things” if we can make fistfuls of money doing it – can’t we “make things” as a hobby? At the very least, can’t we just “make things” on a smaller scale? Put another way, if we believe that it is so important to “make things” to have a vibrant economy, then the way to do that is to, well, “make things.” It’s not to figure out a way to make it profitable to “make things” for sale within our own borders.
What seems strangest to me about protectionist arguments on behalf of localism, though, is that protectionism explicitly relies upon a centralized, one-size-fits-all federal policy. How does one protect local sovereignty by relying so heavily on centralized sovereignty?
* Relatedly, they argue that protectionism is justified because it creates a lower propensity for war – Larison has occasionally noted that protectionist conservatives are unlikely to support military intervention abroad, whereas the opposite is true of free trade conservatives. To which I would respond that our most nakedly imperialistic endeavor, the Spanish-American War, was the doing of the highly protectionist William McKinley, who defeated the free trader and lion of non-interventionism Grover Cleveland. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Europe’s penchant for intra-continental war has seemed to die out as trade between European nations has increased.