by D.J. McGuire
Last week I reviewed how the conservative movement has begun to redefine itself in a way that no longer includes supporters of freer markets. That continued yesterday morning when Henry Olsen – best known recently for his hilarious mislabeling of Justin Amash, see Charles Sykes in The Bulwark for more on that – took aim at those of us who oppose Trump’s tariffs and prefer freer trade.
Olsen, returning to the Washington Post for his latest debacle, insists that anyone who opposed protectionism has embraced the concept of “no moral standard.” He really said that.
Cato’s Scott Lincicome inadvertently let the cat out of the bag in his contribution to the National Review compilation. In attacking President Trump’s attempts to recast U.S. trade policy, he asks the key question: “Why should certain American industries and workers have a moral claim to government protection? Why should government prioritize those workers’ living standards above their fellow citizens?” If there is no moral standard against which we can measure market outcomes, then Lincicome is right to protest. But if there is such a standard, then market interventions are not only morally justified, they become morally mandatory. And that is simply unacceptable for the fundamentalists.
My guess is Olsen, upon reading Lincicome (which you, dear reader, should also do, by the way), fell upon the words “American industries and workers have a moral claim to government protection” and immediately decided to himself, “of course they do,” and…well, here we are.
My focus – and based upon Lincicome’s praise of Don Boudreaux’s Cafe Hayek post on the subject, his too – was on the word certain. In effect, Lincicome is asking: Are steel and aluminum workers more “moral” than automobile workers whose industry will be damaged by higher steel and aluminum costs? Conversely, are auto workers more “moral” than those working in fields impacted by the cost of cars and of trucks? Construction workers? Taxi drivers? Police officers?
Opposition to tariffs is based upon the concept that no American – whatever the field – is more “moral” and thus more worthy of market intervention on their behalf. This includes workers in firms that have yet to exist, but will when entrepreneurs can make use of funds saved by Americans who aren’t paying higher import prices.
As Boudreaux himself puts it…
Lincicome’s point begins with the reality that protectionism artificially helps some American industries and workers only by artificially damaging others. And so protectionism is unethical because it elevates the welfare of those who reap the benefits of protectionism over that of those who necessarily suffer – and protectionism performs this inequitable elevation for no reason other than the fact that its beneficiaries possess more political power or saliency than do its victims.
Lincicome’s, and all free-traders’, moral standard is one of equity: no one gets special favors. The fact that Olsen misses this core element of the case for free trade reveals the intellectual weakness of those who struggle to do the impossible, namely, to supply credible ethical and economic justification for Trump’s economic nationalism.
I agree that providing credible justifications for Trump’s protectionism is impossible, but Olsen’s effort is telling for another reason: it is more evidence that the Trump-led Republican Party is no longer interested in defending freer trade, or even in defending freer markets in general.
Those who, as I do, still defend them should take heed – and as I did, take their leave.