The Free Trade Fetish

When—and why—did free trade become a sacred rite of the Republican right?  NAFTA, you’ll recall, was passed with Republican votes, but pushed through by a Democratic president.  Ronald Reagan wasn’t a knee-jerk free trader.  (Shhhh!  Don’t tell the kidlets at NR!)  Robert Taft wasn’t either.  But I suppose we are to forget about him.  Lincoln wasn’t.  Hamilton—not a Republican, to be sure, but a conservative hero; at least until taken up by the rap crowdwasn’t.

But perhaps looking to men of action is to look in the wrong place.  After all, statesmen only have to contend with gritty, real-world problems—not grapple with matters of high theory.  What do they know?

We recently overheard a prominent conservative say that free trade is a dictate of natural right.  Now that’s right up our ally!  We love natural right.  (As should all of you).  And of course we prefer it when complex questions have but one, simple answer.  Doesn’t everyone?  So we were encouraged that the theory of natural right could answer the trade question.

But being inspired by philosophy, we could not accept this simply as a matter of authority.  We had to confirm it for ourselves.  So we looked it up in Aristotle, the philosopher of natural right.  Well, that was discouraging.  He doesn’t seem to have anything to say about foreign trade, or trade between nations.  He discusses “commerce” (Politics I 9-10), but the domestic version only, and takes a rather dim view.  Exchanging money for goods is better than barter because money gets around the problem that economists call “the coincidence of wants,” but it’s dangerous because money-making tends to become an end itself.  But we know that never happens, so Aristotle must be out-of-date.

Still, not quite ready to give up, we looked at the discussion of natural right (Nicomachean Ethics V 7).  There Aristotle is quite clear that justice exists by nature.  That was encouraging!  But then he says that that the “just by nature” is “altogether changeable” (1134b30).  What could he possibly mean by that?  Maybe that sometimes free trade is just by nature and sometimes it isn’t?  Could something so important be so variable?

That would be hard to accept.  At any rate, as noted, Aristotle doesn’t say anything about foreign trade.  So we turned to Adam Smith, who has quite a lot to say on the subject.  Now, Wealth of Nations is a very long book.  Our edition is two volumes of more than 500 pages each.  We admit to not having read it in a while.  But happily the Edwin Cannan edition has an extensive index.  So we went through that.

Smith does not appear to say anything about the morality or justice of trade.  This is not because he has nothing to say about morality.  He was after all, for 13 years, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.  His other major work is The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  He has positive things to say about the salutary nature of domestic trade in encouraging good government.  But he does not go quite as far as Montesquieu in praising a national dedication to commerce for softening and “perfecting” the manners of men (Spirit of the Laws XX 1).  He certainly sees no moral or “natural right” imperative to eliminate all trade barriers.  He simply argues that, all other things being equal, trade is most conducive to maximizing the wealth of nations and of their individual constituents.  But he nowhere says that wealth maximization is or should be the sole or chief end of statecraft.  Despite being the founding philosopher of the theory of comparative advantage, he very clearly saw that some circumstances called for protection—for the good of domestic industry, local populations, and the nation itself.

At this point, we were ready to concede defeat.  If even Adam Smith has deserted us, is there anyone left?  That is, besides Kevin Williamson?  As Voldermort said to Neville Longbottom, we’d hoped for better.

But then we wondered—what is the overriding principle at stake?  Of trade?  What threat to conscience or soul?  What life-or-death matter?  Has any issue ever been more tactical, more instrumental to human happiness, and less intrinsic?  Perhaps whether we drive on the left or the right side of the road.  But which is more likely to kill you: trade or an oncoming car?

We remain mystified why so many “conservatives” find in “free tradethe hill to die on.  How did this happen?  Madrassafication seems to be at least part of the answer.  Another is that when you, personally, have no real to worries, you look for things to complain about and fight over.

So we were forced to conclude, contra the “conservative” kidlets, that trade is not a matter of high principle.  It’s just a policy—one that can be employed in whatever way, in a given circumstance at a given time, that can best benefit the people under consideration.  When it comes to the American people, if that means liberalization, then we’re for that.  If it means restrictions and skepticism—as current circumstances seem to call for—then we’re for those.  What we’re not for is burning votive candles to Free Trade as if it were some household god.

We don’t object to free trade in principle.  We object to the principle that free trade is a principle.