Acton Institute Powerblog

Isolation and Self-Sufficiency: The Logical Ends of Protectionism

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When it comes to free trade, critics insist that it hurts the American worker — kicking them while they’re down and slowly eroding the communal fabric of mom-and-pops, longstanding trades, and factory towns. Whether it comes from a politician, labor union, or corporate crony, the messaging is always the same: Ignore the long-term positive effects, and focus on the Capitalist’s conquest of the Other.

Trouble is, the basic logic of such thought leads straight back to the Self.

I recently made this point as it pertains to immigration, arguing that such notions of narrow self-preservation give way to our basest instincts and are bad for society as a whole. But it’s worth considering a bit more broadly, as well. For if the point is to defend the Small and the Local for the sake of The Great and Enduring Bubble of American Industry, at what point is this community of workers too big, too specialized, and too diversified for its own countrymen?

At what point are the Texans getting “unfair” growth compared to the Californians, or the Californians compared to the Oklahomians? If this is all as dim and zero-sum as we’re led to believe, what must we do to prevent our fellow productive citizens from harming their fellow countrymen via innovation and hard work? What bleak, self-centered reality dwells at the end of such logic?

I was reminded of this by Mark Perry, who recently highlighted an apt exploration of this by economist Walter Block. Using a reductio ad absurdum approach, Block observes that the “internal logic of the protectionist argument leads to an insistence upon absolute self-sufficiency, to a total economic interest in forgoing trade with all other people, and self-manufacture of all items necessary for well-being.”

Here’s the extended excerpt, pulled from Block’s 1975 book, Defending the Undefendable (emphasis added):

The premise which opposes free trade and justifies protectionism on the national level also justifies it on the state level…Theoretically, any one state could justify its policy in exactly the same way that a nation can. For example, the state of Montana could bar imports from other states on the grounds that they represent labor which a Montanan could have been given but was not. A “Buy Montana” program would then be in order. It would be just as illogical and unsound as any “Buy American” campaign.

The argument, however, does not end at the state level. It can, with equal justification, be applied to cities. Consider the importation of a baseball glove into the city of Billings, Montana. The production of this item could have created employment for an inhabitant of Billings, but it did not. Rather, it created jobs, say, for the citizens of Roundup, Montana, where it was manufactured. The city fathers of Billings could take the AFL-CIO’s anti-trade position and “patriotically” declare a moratorium on trade between the citizens of their city and the foreign economic aggressors in Roundup. This tariff, like those of the larger political subdivisions, would be designed to save the jobs of the citizens.

But there is no logical reason to halt the process at the city level. The anti-trade thesis can be logically extended to neighborhoods in Billings, or to streets within neighborhoods. “Buy Elm Street” or “Stop exporting jobs to Maple Street” could become rallying cries for the protectionists. Likewise, the inhabitants of any one block on Elm Street could turn on their neighbors on another block along the street. And even there the argument would not stop. We would have to conclude that it applies even to individuals. For clearly, every time an individual makes a purchase, he is forgoing the manufacture of it himself and outsourcing its production. Every time he buys shoes, a pair of pants, a baseball glove, or a flag, he is creating employment opportunities for someone else and, thereby, foreclosing those of his own. Thus the internal logic of the protectionist argument leads to an insistence upon absolute self-sufficiency, to a total economic interest in forgoing trade with all other people, and self-manufacture of all items necessary for well-being..

Clearly, such a view is absurd. The entire fabric of civilization rests upon mutual support, cooperation, and trade between people. To advocate the cessation of all trade is nonsense, and yet it follows ineluctably from the anti-trade and protectionist positions. If the argument for the prohibition or restrictions of trade at the national level is accepted, there is no logical stopping place at the level of the state, the city, the neighborhood, the street, or the block. The only stopping place is the individual, because the individual is the smallest possible unit. Premises which lead ineluctably to an absurd conclusion are themselves absurd. Thus, however convincing the protectionist, anti-trade arguments might seem on the surface, there is something terribly wrong with them.

We should remember that this basic philosophy about trade also has implications for how we view work and vocation (and the meaning of both).

In speaking of the “fabric of civilization,” Block closely aligns with Lester DeKoster, who, in Work: The Meaning of Your Life, reminds us that the fundamental meaning of our work is found in its sharing across culture and civilization. “The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work,” he writes, for it prods our natural instincts past the isolation of self-sufficiency and toward widespread restoration:

Work creates civilization and culture…The difference between life in the African bush and life in the Western world is work. Don’t African bush people work? Yes, but at a primitive level. The bush people have to do everything for themselves.

Civilization is sharing in the work of others. It is a circle we will finally see close: Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind.

No matter what front of protectionism we’re facing, this ought to remain a key driver of our opposition. When we expand trade and empower circles of exchange, we will see new innovations and widespread economic prosperity, to be sure. But before and beyond all that, and contrary to Marx’s best and bleakest dystopian predictions, we will see humanity united and the global community connected in profound and mysterious ways.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.