Beware of the Killer Ps

Beware of the Killer Ps

It’s impossible to advocate free trade without acknowledging all of its injustices. I have long tried to uphold the principle of free trade by emphasizing all the human and civil rights that precede it and make it possible, and which, not incidentally, are breached routinely by the nations we accuse of “unfair” trade.

But principles are hard to uphold. In good times it’s tempting to compromise principles because the loss seems so trivial; in bad times, principles seem like a luxury we cannot afford. Our inability to instigate free-trade principles in our most dynamic trading partners has degraded our own regard for free trade, notwi ths t anding our own economic successes in recent years. Domestic manufacturing has acquitted itself especially well — attacking operating costs, improving production efficiencies, adopting new technologies, and so forth. Still, foreign competition looms, and its advantages never seem to wane.

Over the past year or so free-trade principles have been even harder to uphold, as public opinion drifts toward explicitly protectionist policies. Policies work differently than principles: they change with the times. But protectionism asserts some prerogatives that free trade does not do: it denies choices for the consumers; it diminishes incentives for suppliers; it distorts market values; and it invites government agencies to grant commercial advantages to some parties over others.

In short, protectionism recreates many of the same conditions we find objectionable in our “unfair” trade partners, and yet we are meant to be persuaded that such a reduction of our principles will make us more competitive. In fact it narrows our growth potential, literally and figuratively.

Perhaps this drift toward protectionism is sped up by this political season, which is always a difficult time to locate principles in action. Principles are inviolate; politics are pragmatic. Principles are timeless; politics are transitory.

Politics are personal, too. Heartbreaking stories of displaced workers and idled plants focus more on effects than on causes. Principles are hard to find amid all the pathos. Once no one has any greater interest than himself and his problems, protectionism gives rise to populism (an outlook that’s decidedly unprincipled.)

We’re in the middle of that process now, because the economic proposals being offered this season are heavy on politics, and lean on principles: “fix NAFTA so that it works for American workers”; review all existing agreements to arrive at “a genuinely pro-American, pro-worker trade policy”; worker retraining; wage compensation. In fact, the more they propose, the closer these candidates come to straight-up populism.

The least principled, most populist proposal is the Patriot Employer Act, introduced last year by some congressmen who promise a 1% tax credit to “companies that invest in American jobs, pay decent wages, provide good benefits, and support their employees when they are called to active duty.” It would reward companies for making unprincipled choices. It’s a checklist of grievances that would transfer more private initiative over to federal control, but it eases the pain by labeling it patriotic. That’s its appeal to “principle.”

I suppose it’s possible for some people to be apolitical — though I doubt they’re very interesting, or very interested in principles. A lot of political commentary promotes the idea that we need less divisiveness in our politics, or more moderation, or contrarily, that we need independent choices. The opposite is true. Discussion and disagreement lead us back to principles that endure, that we can rely on for our individual well-being, and to maintain fairness and openness in our civil life.

And, our domestic politics will demonstrate again that we are principled people. We make binary choices: one candidate, or position, or the other; for openness and growth, or for limitation and stability. As the politics proceed, a consensus will form around the positions. We’ll choose, and then we’ll proceed. Preferably, according to our principles.

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