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Are Protectionism and Patriotism Incompatible Principles?

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This morning at Ethika Politika, I argue that “acting primarily for the sake of national interest in international affairs runs contrary to a nation’s highest ideals.” In particular, I draw on the thought of Vladimir Solovyov, who argued that, morally speaking, national interest alone cannot be the supreme standard of international action since the highest aspirations of each nation (e.g. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) are claimed to be universal goods. I would here like to explore his critique with reference to the subject of international trade.

Solovyov writes,

[H]ow then can a patriot take the good of his nation to be something distinct from and opposed to everything else? It will clearly not be the ideal moral good which the nation itself desires, and the supposed patriot will prove to be opposed not to other nations but to his own in its best aspirations.

Such a nationalism ultimately runs counter to the “best aspirations” of a nation, the principles that each believes are the right of all people everywhere.

At the same time, however, he warns against the opposite extreme, cosmopolitanism, in which nationality is ignored for the sake of regarding only individual persons as the center of moral activity. This, he argues, fails to account for human dignity inasmuch as each person has a nationality that they often hold dear as an inseparable part of who they are. How can we claim to uphold the person while disregarding an integral part of who they are?

Instead, he ultimately concludes that “we must love all nations as we love our own.” Such a standard avoids the extremes of nationalism and cosmopolitanism while at the same time embracing what is best in both positions: patriotism and altruism, all the while being grounded upon the biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:19).

In my article, I consider this question in the context of international military intervention in the light of certain comments made by Vice President Joseph Biden and Representative Paul Ryan in last Thursday’s debate, but Solovyov certainly believes that the principle to “love all nations as we love our own” ought to apply to all international affairs. How, then, would such a standard apply in the sphere of international trade? Does patriotism require protectionism? If Solovyov is right, the answer is no. In fact, protectionism ultimately runs counter to the principles most deserving of true patriotic love.

Last February, Anthony Bradley considered the difficult subject of immigration in his Acton Commentary article from a perspective that, I believe, reflects this principle. He writes,

America’s immigration debate will never be adequately addressed until we think clearly about the economic incentives that encourage Mexican citizens to risk their lives to cross the border. In fact, if we care about human dignity we must think comprehensively about the conditions for human flourishing so that the effective policies promote the common good. Sadly, U.S. government farm subsidies create the conditions for the oppression and poor health care of Mexican migrant workers in ways that make those subsidies nothing less than immoral.

It is clear that “the common good” for Bradley, like Solovyov, does not mean only “the common good of my nation.” And, indeed, he notes,

The 2003 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) deregulated all agricultural trade, except for corn and dairy products. The Mexican government complains that since NAFTA’s initial implementation in 1994, the United States has raised farm subsidies by 300 percent. As a result, Mexican corn farmers, who comprise the majority of the country’s agricultural sector, experienced drastic declines in the domestic price of their product. It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States began to experience an influx of Mexicans looking for employment in the latter half of the 1990s. Mexican farmers are now rightly protesting because they cannot compete against prices that are artificially deflated for the sake of protecting Americans from necessary market corrections.

The result is that, through our current protectionist policies, we have elevated our interests to the point of contributing to the extreme poverty that motivates immigration in the first place. Furthermore, Bradley notes that “migrant and seasonal farm workers [in the United States] suffer the poorest health status within the agriculture industry.” Thus, we incentivize people to come here, only to encounter a harsh work environment with serious health concerns. Through seeking to protect our own interests above the common good of all, we perpetuate the problem.

He concludes,

Mexican migrant workers are sick and dying because politicians create perverse and immoral incentives by interfering with the market. Ignoring the dignity of Mexican workers and the common good, they instead pander to a powerful special interest group, the corn lobby. What Mexico needs from U.S. political leaders is the fortitude to let market mechanisms foster human flourishing in Mexico so that families do not have to the suffer the hazards of migrancy. In sum, it would be better for both countries if the Mexican economy were not sabotaged by the politics of protectionism.

Notice, when we “love all nations as we love our own,” it is often, as in this case, “better for both countries.” But will such a standard be embraced by either President Obama or Governor Mitt Romney in the second presidential debate tonight, which centers on foreign policy? We’ll see. For my part I certainly hope so, but I expect otherwise.

Read my full article at Ethika Politika here.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • Paul Petrides

    “At the same time, however, he warns against the opposite extreme, cosmopolitanism, in which nationality is ignored for the sake of regarding only individual persons as the center of moral activity. This, he argues, fails to account for human dignity inasmuch as each person has a nationality that they often hold dear as an inseparable part of who they are. How can we claim to uphold the person while disregarding an integral part of who they are?”

    I don’t think that it fails to account for human dignity at all, rather it exposes a personal issue that many of us have, that is to identify who we are with our nationality or any other trait. We shouldn’t be doing this because our identity, with regards to human dignity, is universal as we are all children of God. Are we to assume that God’s image is that of an American, Iraqi, or Brit, or is it something much deeper than that. How can we all be equal in God’s eyes if His image is not uniform? Environmental factors, or traits we were born into are the unique challenges that we must overcome rather than statements of our identity.

    • Believing that “God’s image … is something deeper than [nationality]” does not, therefore, require that nationality be ignored. Human dignity is not only a matter of our universal humanity but also of respecting each person in his/her unique personhood. The reality is that human persons have nationalities, and many hold them to be very important parts of their personal identities. That may not be part of the essence of humanity, but it is a concrete fact of the matter. And indifference towards that fact fails to respect persons as persons and thus fails to treat them will the fullest human dignity. Must I “overcome” my American citizenship or my Scots or German heritage? Or, rather, ought I to see how I uniquely have something to offer the whole of humanity precisely as a Scots-German American? Which of the two treats me with greater dignity?

      • Paul Petrides

        To clarify my position in light of your
        comments, I do not think that nationality is unimportant, but rather feel that
        dignity, as I understand it, is not tied to it. As you correctly illustrate,
        what we are is tied to our purpose. God has a plan for us, and His plan is
        unique to the individual. This is expressed quite clearly in our different
        nationalities to use the current example. Dignity, from how I understand it, is
        not a statement of unique purpose, but rather a statement of our equal worth in
        the eyes of God. Maybe it is just a matter of semantics but it is purpose that
        we must also respect and that, as I noted above, has a lot to do with what we

        That being said, I don’t think my last
        sentence is correct as you have pointed out. Our traits that we are born into
        are reflections of the purpose of our lives rather than reflections of our
        dignity. They make hints at what is expected of us rather than identify us. I
        hope this better clarifies my initial comment.

  • Roger McKinney

    Neither should we force national identity on people who see no need for it. National pride is far more dangerous than the lack of it.

    “rom a speech delivered on January 10, 1849 by Cobden to the people of Manchester:

    It is of paramount moment to the English people that we
    should not allow ourselves to entertain an undue or exaggerated notion
    of our own importance as a nation, or to take a too unfavourable view of
    other countries. It is through your national pride that cunning people
    manage to extract taxes from you. They persuade you that nothing can
    be done abroad unless you do it; and that you are so superior to all
    other countries, that your next neighbour, France, for instance, is
    nothing but a band of brigands, and unless you are constantly on the
    watch, they will be ready to pounce upon you and carry off your

  • The slippery slope is a logical fallacy. See

    Nationality is not a desire; it is a possession that is not originally chosen (though it can be chosen and/or rejected later in life). Rather, it is given by birth. People have nationalities; that is the fact of the matter. This is not simply a desire or preference but an integral part of who they are, one held dear by many. The cosmopolitan claim that nationality is morally indifferent ignores this fact of the matter. The person is not morally indifferent and yet persons have nationalities.

    Furthermore, what the patriot loves about his/her nation, as I noted, is not the nation in and for itself but the nation for the universal principles for which it exists. These principles, inasmuch as they are in accord with the Good, can and ought to be loved and nations that affirm them deserve to be loved for seeking to embody them in principle and practice. Nationalism, which I explicitly rejected in my post, affirms the nation in and for itself, apart from any universal (and therefore transnational) principles, contradicting the universal nature of those principles that the patriot holds so dear. The point being that many patriots degenerate into nationalists in contradiction to their own intended patriotism, rightly understood.

    Thus, I agree that nationalism is dangerous, but that does not negate the good of loving one’s own nation. Abusus non tollit usum. The quote from Cobden in no way refutes my position but is perfectly compatible with it. We ought not to abuse patriotism to the point of degenerating into nationalism that affirms our own nation over/against all others nor, on the other hand, ought we to ignore nationality altogether for the sake of our moral duty to persons (since that also is self-contradictory), but rather, as Solovyov argues, we ought to love all nations as we love our own. This position alone is both logical and moral.