The silver lining to the president’s protectionist trade agenda is the desperation with which he and his officials attempt to sell it under the guise of free trade.
One would be hard pressed to come to this realization, given all the nationalist rhetoric the president and his allies are employing to sell tariffs, but it seems free trade is still very much en vogue. Even as President Trump pursues an economic agenda that asserts the government’s discretionary judgment over individual ability to seek out and pursue through trade their own self-defined good, he and his administration officials are anxious to convince the public that his protectionist agenda fosters rather than hinders free trade.
For his own part, Trump seems determined to sell his tariff policies as the savior of a global free trade system that has fallen into dysfunction as a result of the weak-willed myopia of past American leaders. Trade, he argues, cannot be free unless it is also fair and reciprocal. This mantra of “free, fair and reciprocal trade” is touted by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in official documents outlining the administration’s trade platform.
The problem, however, is that, no matter how emphatically the president crows about his good intentions and imputes stupidity, and worse, maliciousness, to his detractors and predecessors, he personally is not a free trader and his policies are not in aid of free trade.
Ultimately, it boils down to a dichotomy between monism and pluralism.
Free trade is a pluralistic system, which allows multiple competing value sets to exist simultaneously, whereas government action represents a monopoly on force and inherently discriminates against anything that runs afoul of its judgment.
Free trade does not mean all things to all people. As a system, it represents a largely unregulated space wherein individual actors are free to pursue economic actions that benefit them, in whatever manner they choose to define “benefit.” When one looks at the specific, agentially-defined term “benefit”, discrepancies begin to crop up.
This is because individuals enter into trade arrangements with different motivations and ideas about what constitutes a fair value-for-value exchange. In no ways is this a negative; it empowers individuals not only to improve their physical lot in life by giving them free reign to negotiate with various actors all over the world–a possibility severely impeded by the hostility that comes with the erecting of trade barriers–and find the best deal possible, but to express their values by using their purchasing power to endorse goods that resonate with their own sense of right and wrong. And since trade is inherently reciprocal, it is not just one actor who benefits, but his or her trading partner as well.
Pluralism gains additional nuance by the realization that even individuals who enter into a contract to trade may have different ideas about what constitutes “fairness” and “value”.
But when trade enters the political realm, this richness is lost. Free trade is seen more as a monolithic institution than what it actually is: a system whereby individuals are free to act, or not act, to promote economic well-being and epistemological well-being. Diverse and autonomous actions are condensed and seen in terms of national agendas, which has a suppressing effect on pluralism. The “fairness” element of free trade is no longer defined by those who have a vested interest in the specific act of trading with another actor, but by politicians, who see national agendas and security concerns. Individual sovereignty is subsumed by these considerations on the rationale that citizens cannot have freedom without a nation to defend it, a line of thinking that is wholly at odds with the very principles of free trade and, indeed, of limited government. It assumes that, without some intermediary body to act on behalf of citizens, they are incapable of securing, let alone determining what is in their benefit, since “benefit” is defined in reference to the political agendas of nation-states. If this construction is true, it is not individuals who truly hold rights, since they cannot effectively act on them without the mantle of government protectionism.
Thus, trade protectionism cannot coexist with pluralistic interests, meaning it is at odds with free trade. Nothing that undermines the pluralistic freedom inherent to free trade can promote it, either in the short-term or the long-term. Even supposing the president were a free trader, a claim belied by his rhetoric that insults anyone whose judgment differs from his, his chosen policies do nothing to promote the system he claims to value.
Just as political liberality rests on the idea that rights are reciprocal–that whatever freedom one values in one’s own life must be respected in another–so too does the system of free trade. Any individual who values the ability to form their own judgments then act on those conclusions–and the president’s rhetoric certainly betrays a healthy sense of confidence in his convictions–must respect the rights of others to do the same. Free trade is the only system that adopts this principle as a fundamental precept. Protectionism is a direct assault upon it.
Also published on Medium.