Free Trade for the People — Not for Global Elites

If the free trade case isn’t quickly transformed into a “free trade for the people” argument, the rise of economic nationalism will take decades to reverse.

By Samuel Gregg Published on February 3, 2017

Times are tough for free trade — the toughest since the first era of globalization came to a shuddering halt with the outbreak of war in 1914 and tariffs swept the world after 1918.

Across the planet, economic nationalism is on the march. Faith in economic globalization’s benefits is waning throughout the West. Nothing symbolizes this more than Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency.

If the case for free trade is to have a future, it requires a radical rethink. And part of that makeover is going to involve shedding something that only damages the cause of free trade. This is its association with what’s often called “Davos Man.”

No Borders, No Roots

Devised by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, the term Davos Man originally referred to those political, cultural, and economic leaders from around the globe who gather annually at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

According to Huntington, Davos Man eschews any loyalty to nation and views patriotism as a quaint sentiment. For Davos Man, these are primeval attachments which need to be dispensed with.

If the case for free trade is to have a future, it requires a radical rethink. And part of that makeover is going to involve shedding something called “Davos Man.”

Davos Man isn’t limited to business titans, heads of multinational corporations, and people who work in financial markets. He also takes the form of transnational officials who work in institutions such as the United Nations or the European Commission in Brussels as well as people employed by international NGOs. Nor will anyone be surprised to learn that Davos Man enjoys the company of actors and celebrities.

To the extent Davos Man has a moral creed, it’s a mélange of social liberalism, environmentalism, and a new order of a borderless world. Religion is seen as, at best, potentially useful at providing poverty relief. At worst, religion is considered the refuge of fanatics and anyone stupid enough to be skeptical of gender ideology and techno-utopianism.

As for Brexit and Trump’s election as president, Davos Man is aghast at the parochialism and ignorance of anyone who voted in favor of either of these supposed calamities.

Of course, much of Davos Man is a parody. Not everyone who works at the UN or a hedge fund is a soulless globalist. While many of them believe that free markets are vastly preferable to protectionism, they’re also proud of their country, involved in their local community, and regard aspirations of world government as a dangerous illusion.

Still, there’s enough truth to Davos Man to make his association with free trade a major handicap to the case for an open global economy.

It’s one thing for people to accept, for example, that for all the trade-offs associated with free trade, the long-term benefits are in the national interest. It’s quite another to be treated with condescension by people who seem utterly unaware that economic globalization has social, economic and psychological costs, and who regard anyone questioning the notion of a borderless, nation-free world as a bigoted Neanderthal.

Reframing Free Trade Arguments

So what can free traders do to put distance between themselves and the agenda and culture associated with Davos Man?

One positive step would be to acknowledge publicly that opening up markets brings with it real disruption that not everyone is well-equipped to cope with. The 56 year-old manufacturing worker who loses his job because of automation or foreign competition can’t just pick up and move to Silicon Valley to find a tech job.

Second, free traders should stop making arguments which involve endlessly citing graphs and economic data produced by international institutions and statistical agencies. The economic facts about how free trade reduces poverty, lowers prices, facilitates the spread of technology etc., aren’t going to change. But they clearly haven’t persuaded millions of free trade’s merits.

Excessive reliance upon data conveys the impression that free traders are more concerned about statistics than actual people.

Data matters because it allows us to compare some of the measureable effects of free trade versus protectionism. But excessive reliance upon this type of information can give the impression that free traders are more concerned about statistics than actual people.

Global growth numbers simply don’t mean much to people worried about whether the bank is going to foreclose on their business loan tomorrow. By contrast, talking about the export opportunities that free trade creates for small and medium-size businesses is far more compelling.

Third, free traders need to ditch the rhetoric of a “new global order” or “new world order.” More people may be more open to free trade arguments if they could be sure that it didn’t imply handing over national sovereignty to the likes of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker — a man who once described borders as “the worst invention ever.”

Fourth, free traders should point out that many Davos-types are not, deep-down, enthusiastic about genuinely free trade. One reason why many people attend Davos-like summits is to network, lobby, and stitch-up deals. That includes trade deals, many of which involves writing provisions into trade agreements that protect and promote their interests rather than advance free trade.

In short, free traders need to get smarter about making their pitch to non-elites and recognizing that their association with transnational globalists has played a major role in putting free trade in a defensive position.

That’s going to require humility on the part of those free traders who already spend way too much time associating with government officials, corporate boards, transnational agencies, and any number of politically-correct causes. If the case for free trade isn’t quickly transformed into a “free trade for the people” argument, the rise of economic nationalism could take decades to reverse.


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute and author of For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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