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.
The good Mr. Dr. Larison has some tough but thoughtful words in response to my defense of free trade. They are well worth reading. I would like to address some of his arguments, especially because, much like many other free trade libertarians, I find myself agreeing with Larison far more often than not.
At the outset, he notes that:
Localists tend to take for granted that dependence on distant centers of wealth and power, which the interdependence at the heart of globalism requires, is antithetical to a decentralized political and economic order. I can imagine why someone might want to reject such a decentralized order, but I simply don’t see how someone maintains that it is compatible with the results of globalist policies.
I’m not so sure about this claim, as I noted in my original post. The protectionism advocated by localists is not a localist protectionism, but is instead one that relies heavily on tariffs instituted by a distant centralized government. Admittedly, this may simply be a result of Constitutional realities, but as a practical matter, a one-size-fits-all tariff imposed by bureaucrats in Washington seems like an awfully blunt instrument that is likely to negatively affect just as many local interests as it protects.
If regional differences remain in the U.S., they are much less pronounced today than ever before thanks to a combination of mass mobility, technological advance facilitating rapid transport and communication across the continent and shared consumer culture. Minnesotans may not eat fatback and Vermonters may not eat rellenos, but everyone is importing the same pork from the same factory farms in the Midwest, and perhaps the less said about the homogenizing effects of the national Buffalo wing phenomenon the better. We are steadily moving towards the economic, cultural and political monoculture that Thompson claims we are avoiding.
First, whatever the homogenizing effects of the Buffalo wing, the cuisine of my quasi-but-beloved-hometown has far more going for it than a few pieces of chicken scraps – witness the magnificent Beef on Weck sandwich, amongst other things – though what is called a “Buffalo Wing” in the rest of the country is often little like the wing you will get at, say, Duff’s. Second, Larison specifically talks here about our food coming from the same giant factory farms in the Midwest, no matter where we happen to live, which is certainly and sadly true; but this ignores the fact that those giant factory farms in the Midwest are amongst the biggest benficiaries of protectionist policies that remain.
Similarly, Larison goes on to point to the homogenizing effects of national television and radio, and a national transportation system that allows for greater movement of transplants from place A to place B. And, no doubt, national television and radio are quite homogenizing – but they don’t have much to do with free trade. The issue of transplants is a more challenging question, and it’s closely related to the issue of trade; but ultimately, unless you can control the flow of information, it would seem that the local culture those transplants leave behind may be better off losing them – if they are willing to drop everything for a way of life they can’t obtain in their hometown, certainly I think they’d be willing to fight to obtain that way of life if they were compelled to remain in their hometown, destroying their local culture from within in the process.
Larison goes on to accuse me of a “sharp bit of polemical rhetoric” in arguing that “making things” isn’t usually all that important to a local culture. And yes, I am certainly guilty of that in the passage he quotes, which I was using as shorthand for some other arguments that I wanted to make but for which I just didn’t have the space. But I was trying to make an important point with that – in order to profitably “make things,” a community must inherently rely upon other communities to do so, most likely many other communities, if it is to have its economy center on one or two economic activities forming its cultural identity. In order to do this, that community will require either the assistance of some greater, more centralized power which can effectively force other communities within its jurisdiction to purchase the fruits of the first community’s labor, or it will require access via free trade to as many markets as possible, thereby taking the risk that it will be unable to compete on a global scale or, in the alternative, have to take some fairly significant pay cuts.
To me, the latter is a far more decentralized system of governance than the former. However, if the latter is an unacceptable alternative, yet a third way exists – take enough pride in your region and your neighbors to accept higher prices for whatever your local products may be, aka “Buy Local.” Such a movement has the benefit of seeking to protect one’s neighbors and one’s culture rather than seeking to rely on centralized government to protect an industry that is based on another coast, in a region that you may never see, against the insidious competition of the impoverished Third World.
Ultimately, though, the argument for free trade has to come down to something very simple – free markets provide a reflection of our society and our cultural values that is far more accurate than anything that gets expressed when markets are less free. They show us what we as a society or a culture actually value, rather than what we merely claim to value. Oftentimes, that reflection is quite ugly, but seeing it allows us to push for true cultural change and reform rather than the window-dressing that is provided when we try to tax or legislate something into or out of existence.
In the rest of his post, Larison goes on to argue against the idea that free trade leads to peace. On that issue, I will simply have to defer to Mr. Larison, because there I am even further out of my depth, and he is in his best element. But I am happy that he disavows the notion that free trade makes war more likely even as he defends the argument that protectionism does not. I had understood his position to be that free trade makes war more likely; to the extent I was incorrect about this, I apologize and retract.