As one who was once enamored with libertarianism, I find it difficult to believe I end up being the guy arguing against free trade, and in favor of new taxes. I’m also a guy who is surrounded by inexpensive electronics, almost all of which were surely manufactured in another country. So cheering on the President while he makes my tools and toys more expensive, feels weird to say the least of it.
Even as I drifted rightward ideologically, I still thought free trade was ideal for a long time. In my first Vice News interview, Elle Reeve asked me about trade and I told her I disagreed with most of the Alt Right on the subject. I like the quote commonly attributed to Bastiat which goes “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”. Ron Paul told me economic sanctions were a reliable prelude to war, and I believed it.
The Trump presidency has given me a profound appreciation for contemplating trade policy. I’m made to recall a BBS game, back when there was no Internet and we just called one another’s computers over the phone line, called TradeWars. I had never gotten into it back then, but I can see now why it was so popular, since I now view trade policy as an exciting exercise in strategic thinking, as opposed to a tedious mathematical equation.
The phrase “trade war” was all over the news beginning with the Republican presidential primary, and has grown louder and louder in recent months. Thinking of trade as a competition amongst nations, made sense to me as a free trader. “May the best man win” was my attitude, confident that in a fair competition, my country would dominate. Altering the playing field through public policy, to accomplish higher purposes than a quick buck, was an element of strategy in that competition which I had never really contemplated very deeply before.
Free trade is a fine default position, from which to contemplate other possibilities. “What would actual free trade orthodoxy dictate here? What deviations from that standard exist in the system? How can we alter our public policy to offset the negative impacts of some other nation’s trade policy?” Those are questions which might be asked by a reasonable free trader. As I began to contemplate Trump’s trade proposals, I looked at things from this perspective myself. If some country was charging tariffs on US exports, I figured we could, and should, retaliate with our own tariffs, but only as a means by which to compel that country to break down their barriers to trade.
The unreasonable free trader insists on unilateral free trade. He adheres to an absurd orthodoxy which cannot stand up to scrutiny, unless he dare confess a willingness to see the impoverishment of himself, his neighbors, and his offspring. If Mexico wants to charge a 15% tariff on imports from the United States, fine with him, we can’t retaliate with our own tariff. If the Chinese subsidize cheap goods and dump them on our shores for no other purpose than to put American companies out of business, fine with him too. What matters to him is the correctness of his position, rather than the outcome of any particular policy, or lack thereof. I had previously been in this camp myself, before having my beliefs challenged in the lead up to the 2016 Presidential election.
As I watched the debate over trade policy unfold, I discovered a whole new dimension of domestic and foreign policy. A high stakes strategy game, with infinite possibilities.
The (possibly misattributed) Bastiat quote, and Ron Paul’s concerns about foreign relations still remain at the forefront of my considerations, but if trade policy can result in martial conflict, this is a reason to consider it carefully, and act decisively, rather than to unilaterally disarm. If trade policy can be viewed as a military provocation, it only stands to reason that my country should answer such provocations by making them costly and thus undesirable. For the same reasons, it is likewise insane to think that we ought to have unmitigated trade relations with adversarial nations.
Pat Buchanan has a column out yesterday, titled Tariffs — The Taxes That Made America Great, which I plan to read on air today. Going all the way back to 1789, he outlines a rich history of American economic nationalism. From the earliest days of our constitution, tariffs were the revenue mechanism of choice for the federal government. Not so much because it was the most lucrative, as much as to promote “the encouragement and protection of manufactures.”
To hear the cult of free trade tell it, trade policy is incapable of encouraging anything but graft, corruption, war, and economic catastrophe. So why did George Washington set our young republic down this course?
As it turns out, things aren’t so simple.
What first made me consider these implications was a moment during the Presidential debates of 2016. Then candidate Trump pointed out that Mexico was imposing a 15% tariff on US exports, yet the United States had no reciprocal barrier to Mexican exports. This was going on while we were supposedly in a “Free Trade Agreement” with that country, commonly known as NAFTA.
Mexico obviously benefits from the ability to sell products to the United States far more than the United States benefits from the ability to sell products to Mexico. If one wanted a world free of trade barriers, it would stand to reason that the United States ought to apply some sort of pressure to compel Mexico to change their policy, and a tariff on Mexican exports could surely accomplish this. Canada too, also in the midst of the North American “Free Trade” Agreement, had an astronomical tariff on US dairy exports. Again, even from the perspective of a free trade advocate, why would the United States do nothing to rectify this barrier?
For that matter, if free trade was universally beneficial, as we’ve been told by both parties for what seems like an eternity, why would these countries harm their own economies by imposing these tariffs?
What becomes obvious when one looks into it in some depth, without the blinders of ideology, is that these policies exist for good reason.
Mexico wants to build up their own industrial base, and so while exports are helpful to this pursuit, imports are detrimental to it. So they’ll preach the wisdom of free trade when they want access to markets, but apply a decidedly different standard when it comes to their own trade policies. Competition from American dairy farmers would harm Canada’s dairy industry, and so to keep that industry thriving domestically, they make dairy imports from the United States prohibitively expensive.
As the Trump administration imposed tariffs on steel, American steel manufacturing, an industry once gone from our country, exploded. Steel production is important for a lot more than a Nation’s GDP stats. This is a military necessity, and if we are dependent on foreign countries for our steel, then we had best hope we never find ourselves in conflict with those countries on whom we depend.
With tariffs being imposed on Chinese exports, what other industries might take root in the United States? Could we begin making our own computers? Our own smartphones? In an age of information, where so much vital knowledge is passed through our electronic devices, is that not likewise a national security issue? How can we even contemplate security, when a foreign country, under the rule of the Communist Party, no less, manufactures all the devices on which we communicate?
To see so many of my fellow conservatives go into kneejerk conniptions about “socialism” whenever any sort of economic intervention is contemplated, is a sad sight indeed. Especially while those same conservatives are simultaneously suckered into the neverending foreign policy disasters of the same neocon element that pushes free trade. To them, America is to be always at war, and yet open to any human, material, or informational penetration. The world is supposedly some terrible place, replete with monsters to slay in every corner of the Earth, and yet as we go around the world confronting every real and imagined danger, every man, woman, child, product, service, and bit of propaganda can flow freely to and fro across our unsecured border.
Our economy declines, our birthrates follow, and instead of changing course, we replace our industry with imports, and our population with immigrants who can never hope to maintain what we have built. This state of affairs can only describe a nation on its death bed, and yet we have the cure for this otherwise terminal illness, sitting right beside us on the night table.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you at 808-4-Outlaw, and the more you talk the less I have to, so please do give us a call.
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