Acton Institute Powerblog

The cramped morality of trade protectionism

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“If a product is seen only as the opportunity for work, it is certain that the anxieties of protectionists are well founded.” –Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms

Drawing inspiration from a 1847 essay by the inimitable Frédéric Bastiat, economist Donald Boudreaux tackles a popular argument from today’s trade protectionists: namely, “that protectionism is justified if enough consumers or voters are willing to pay higher prices in order to help workers.”

The problem, of course, is that such a perspective debases the value of labor to the value of products and vice versa, ignoring the many other relationships and ripple-effects that production and trade are bound to inspire.

Using the iron industry as an example, Bastiat asks a series of questions to illuminate the narrowness of this sort of outlook. “Has iron a relationship only with those who make it?” he asks. “Is it foreign to those that use it? Is its sole and final purpose that of being produced? And if it is useful… does it not follow that foreigners cannot reduce its price even to the point of preventing its production here without doing us more good in this latter respect than any harm it might do in the former?”

Boudreaux picks up where Bastiat leaves off, outlining three key reasons for why this common (mis)understanding fails, reminding us that (1) foreign trade isn’t the only destroyer (and creator) of domestic jobs, (2) many of our domestic jobs (present and future) are made possible by various imports, and (3) foreign workers are people, too.

Taken together, he explains, this makes for a “morally cramped” position:

Even if we stipulate for the sake of argument that trade policy is to be judged exclusively by its effects on workers in the particular jobs that they currently hold, a professed willingness to pay higher prices in order to magnanimously prevent some workers from suffering particular job losses rings hollow as a proclamation of one’s alleged superior morality if the person who so professes that willingness ignores the job losses inflicted on foreign workers by that person’s own-government’s protectionist policies.

…It is the typical protectionist whose morality is far more narrow and cramped, for that person (1) ignores or discounts the interests of both domestic and foreign consumers, (2) ignores the interests of all workers, domestic and foreign, save for the relatively small handful who stand to be protected today from having to compete with imports, and (3) ignores the benefits of freedom as an end in itself.

Boudreaux pinpoints some real moral gaps, but before and beneath all these, it’s worth noting that the risks and threats to these “interests” or “benefits” are not confined to mere material wealth or notions of national security.

As co-creators fashioned in the image of God, we were not only made to create, we were also made to trade and exchange, and not just for our personal status, security, or material well-being. Thus, whatever destruction or inhibition might occur from particular protectionist policies, whether in terms of technological innovation or material wealth, there’s a corresponding destruction and inhibition that will also take in the realms of the social and the spiritual — of community, virtue, and vocation.

We were created to work and to serve, to create and to collaborate, and that activity ought to extend well beyond our short-term notions of self-interest or self-preservation. “Our work is not just toil, or something that concerns just us,” as we learn in For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. “It’s something that creates a huge organic mass of relationships between human persons…The fruit of that tree and all of our creativity is not only products, but relationships…The fruit of our labor is fellowship. It’s community.”

Free trade doesn’t just create economic prosperity. It creates moral bonds among domestic citizens, across nations, and between rich and poor. Disruption and pain aren’t absent throughout that process, but through the creativity, innovations, and relationship that follow, a firm foundation is formed.

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose the most recent wave of protectionist ideology, but this is the most fundamental: God created our work to bear the fruits of flourishing and fellowship. As we seek to construct a just and prosperous economic order for all, that basic tweak to the economic imagination makes all the difference.

Photo: Public Domain

Work: The Meaning of Your Life

Work: The Meaning of Your Life

Where do we find the core of life's meaning?  Right on the job!  At whatever work we do -- with head or hand, from kitchen to executive suite, from your house to the White House. New Foreword by Stephen J. Grabill and Afterword by Greg Forster

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.

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