The GOP’s Growing Protectionism is a Bad Sign

By Joseph Sunde Published on March 18, 2016

It’s become rather predictable to hear progressives promote protectionist rhetoric on trade and globalization. What’s surprising is when it spills from the lips of the leading Republican candidate.

Although Donald Trump surely leads the pack on trade-war bluster, his rants have been bandied about with little opposition from the rest, even propped and promoted by occasional “amens.” In the most recent CNN debate, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich all joined in to some extent or another, echoing Trump’s ambiguous claims that trade must be “free but fair,” and that our trade deals must somehow insulate American workers from the rest of the planet.

Alas, in the very same corners where free trade has long been recognized and hailed as a propeller for economic growth and dynamism, protectionism is starting to stick.

As Tim Carney details at length, Trump’s crusade is resonating with working-class voters, despite the weight of evidence against it. “Conservatives may scoff at this Made in America mindset as economically illiterate,” he writes. “But politically, it seems to be a winner.”

Indeed, Trump’s protectionism provides a cozy illusion of a safe and secure America where we produce and consume only for ourselves, where competition and the disruption it brings can be stopped by hiring the right dealmakers with the right calculators. It’s an appealing image in a certain respect, for as with any approach that values liberty and risk, free trade can and does result in plenty of disruption and creative destruction in the short run, and that means pain.

On this, American politicians will forever struggle in selling palatable solutions, and up until now, we’ve seen two primary products: “Trade has its winners and its losers,” Carney writes. “For the losers, Democrats have offered a safety net — which many working-class voters resent. Republicans have offered mostly odes to cheap goods. That doesn’t thrill everyone either.”

Taking up this stubborn reality, Charles Cooke asks the necessary next question for conservatives: “What, then, is the GOP supposed to do? If it can’t offer a safety net to mitigate the downsides of trade and it can’t limit trade lest it damage the welfare of the country, it’s in a bit of a moral bind isn’t it?” 

I doubt there’s a quick fix to this dilemma. Cooke is right that welfare and promises of cheaper goods won’t cut it. But that’s likely because the real issue runs a bit deeper. Access to cheap goods is no small matter, improving the lives of the poor and downtrodden the most. But the bigger sticking point will only be overcome if we grasp the bigger economic picture and the theology and philosophy of life behind it. 

The Bigger Picture of Economic Growth

First, other than the prospect of cheap consumer goods, why is the broadening of such exchange necessary? Why must we expose ourselves to others, sacrificing America’s long history in Industry X or Y for “mere profit”? If the greedy misers responsible for this change are willing to “outsource our nation’s future” for their own individual gain, what will happen to the most illustrious of our traditional trades? What shall become of our “living wage”?

To think this way is to think only of ourselves (more on that later), but in doing so, we are also thinking only of our immediate and short-term situation. As Carney notes, economists from across the ideological spectrum agree that free trade promotes widespread prosperity and welfare over the long-term. And the evidence backs them up. By allowing the economy to reallocate time, labor, and resources more efficiently, resources here and abroad are put to better use. This benefits everyone in society, even the laborer who may face temporary displacement.

Protectionism will keep consumer prices high, and so might “protect” certain jobs in the short term, but that’s just the surface. In artificially blocking economic growth and mobility, we are tying up or blocking off any number of resources and opportunities. By stifling economic growth for the sake of select jobs or industries, we are stifling new ideas and industries that could take us into new seasons of economic growth and stability.

It’s strange that conservatives are in need of a lesson about the value of competition in the free market, but by allowing the market to work and readjust, we make room for ingenuity and creativity to breathe, empowering entrepreneurs and businesses to provide better, more productive employment for Americans in the future.

In short, the authentic, flexible, innovative, and forward-looking economy is better for everyone in the long-term than trying to artificially prop up jobs and wages while other countries adapt and refine.

That’s the economic argument, but to really resist the protectionist temptation, we also need to think about the nature of work. We’ll take that up in part 2 of this commentary.

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