Free trade has undeniably improved the material condition of humans. Lower barriers to trade, along with improved technological efficiency and global supply chains, fuel a robust international economy, and have accounted for untold economic growth since the end of the Second World War.
Coupled with widespread globalization and a frosty cosmopolitanism, however, free trade has reduced those humans to faceless economic inputs, cogs in a massive, borderless machine. In such a system, are increased efficiency and cheaper knick-knacks worth the toll on national unity and spiritual growth?
The 21st century will be one in which nations will struggle increasingly with this question. If the concept of the “nation-state” is to endure, societies that wish to maintain their traditional identities will have to pursue a measure of economic nationalism to preserve their borders, languages, and cultures.
Free trade—or at least trade with very low-level tariffs—offers the fastest route to growth for many nations, but for those that wish to maintain their industrial—and moral—cores, a degree of protectionism is prudent and necessary. High protective tariffs, focused on key industries like steel, and targeted skillfully toward unfair trading partners, protect a nation’s working men, ensuring a stable social order, and safeguarding a country’s vital national security interests.
Targeted Protectionism Benefits American Workers
Since the disastrous Smooth-Hawley Tariff of 1930 (and the resulting retaliatory tariffs that contracted the global economy further in the dark days of the Depression), both major political parties in the United States have eschewed protective tariffs. A cornerstone of Republican economic policy dating back to Lincoln (and to Henry Clay of the Whigs before him), tariffs lost political and economic cache to the free-trade advocates of Bretton Woods. That order fueled a major post-war economic expansion in the United States and the world, but also left many Americans in the dust.
President Trump has brought the old argument over tariffs back to the forefront. While running for the presidency, then-candidate Donald Trump often spoke of the “hollowing out” of America’s industrial heartland, as good wages fled abroad. While it is only natural for large companies to maximize their profitability, the moral toll of shipping jobs overseas has been devastating.
Men who once could support themselves and their families on factory wages found themselves struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing economy. Entire communities sank into economic and moral privation, or disappeared. Coupled with the influx of low-paid illegal immigrants, American workers lost jobs or wages, and national wealth fled abroad.
To an extent, such disruption is the price to pay for new technology and better efficiency. Surely, many Americans have benefitted from cheaper consumer goods. But efficiency is a soulless god. Could we not pay a few more dollars or cents for a washing machine, if it means keeping Americans employed and their families fed?
Some will argue that economics operates independently of national borders. True, comparative advantage of the David Ricardo and Adam Smith school of economic philosophy does benefit trading nations, but only if such trade is fair. American trade with Britain, for example, is trade between two nations with relatively similar legal and economic frameworks that ensure and enforce certain quality and labor standards. As such, grommets traded for widgets between those countries should be both free and fair.
American trade with China and the Third World, on the other hand, is a far more uneven prospect. How can American workers compete with near-slave labor in China or other Third World nations? Perhaps American workers enjoy overly indulgent labor protections, but a nation of free workingmen that must compete with poorly paid child labor will never enjoy a fair, even footing.
Historical Parallel – Lincoln and Slavery
This situation was the root of Abraham Lincoln’s objection to slavery: while Lincoln came to abhor the institution for its own social ills, he and other members of the young Republican Party primarily opposed slavery because of its deleterious effect on the wages of free workingmen. Why pay a man a living wage when one could force a slave to work for nothing?
Further, the “wage-slave” of Northern factories—factories that were quite brutal compared to the free-labor of preindustrial America—had the prospect of earning his way to economic freedom, just as a young Lincoln had liberated himself from drudgery through work and education.
With slavery, at least, the United States could address the situation domestically, albeit violently. How do we force Third World nations to give up slave or child labor?
The only plausible answer, at least in the short-term, is through trade protectionism. The United States remains the largest economy in the world—and, thanks to Trump, one that is growing rapidly once again. The sheer economic hegemony of the United States allows it to gain immensely from the judicious use of targeted protectionism.
The proposition is simple—if you want to do business with the United States on equal footing, stop putting the screws to our workers and to your own.
The Paradox of Free Trade
Aside from America’s ability to throw its weight in the global economy, there exists a moral hazard to the full-scale worship of efficiency for its own sake.
A key paradox of overly-rapid economic expansion is that material excess breeds social and cultural decadence. As the fight for survival morphs gradually into the fight for the next iPhone, the inherent virtue instilled in men through a struggle against Nature is, at least partially, lost. This faded virtue—a turning toward the excessive indulgence of men’s vices—is at the crux of my argument that a “New Homestead Act” would prompt the rise of a more virtuous, masculine civil society. Striving against Nature and toward something greater than themselves and their material realm is crucial for men.
Similarly, focused protectionism could provide the economic framework in which men could sustain themselves and their families productively, while also preserving those communities ravaged by globalization’s insatiable appetite for efficiency. A nation is more than an economy; it is a collection of people bound together by shared history, common values, and stable institutions.
In driving through my beloved rural South, I frequently come across small towns that cling uncertainly to life since the mills left for Mexico or Vietnam. Perhaps these towns could innovate to attract new industry or tourism dollars, but their worn facades and decrepit main streets speak to the devastation of putting sheer efficiency ahead of human life.
While I am, ultimately, an advocate for freer trade (non-scientifically, I would say I am 85% a free trader, 15% a protectionist), Trump’s ascension has caused many Americans to reexamine the long-held orthodoxy that free trade is an unalloyed good. The globalists’ worship of efficiency-at-all-costs has gutted American communities and deprived workingmen of, to quote Gavin McInness, their “economic libido.”
We need not abandon free trade entirely—nor would we want to do so—but targeted protective tariffs, designed to protect key industries related to national security, are a prudent step toward ensuring a fairer, freer world, and a more prosperous United States.