The President’s Shameful Attempt to Control Harley-Davidson

A government with power of discernment, whose officials think and feel and act empathetically towards their favored interest group, is a government of tyranny.

Such a government is characterized by officials who use the structure of government to codify their sentimentalities: to protect those causes that, in their opinion, are most deserving of aid.

But, there is no empiric standard that drives such action. Rather, opinion becomes the engine of government, directing its every move. The chief folly of such a government is its relativity. Rule of law is negated; there is no egalitarian impulse ensuring all citizens are treated fairly. There is a hierarchy established amongst the citizenry, which is rooted in the discretion of lawmakers. All are expected to contribute to the government, on which they are told their continued freedom depends, but not all receive the same treatment from government. Some are told they must sacrifice so that others may thrive and, in the long run, the prosperity of the country as a whole will provide for all.

The hardships of those in the citizenry whose interests are not deemed as being sufficiently worthy of the protection of the beneficent hand of government are swept aside, which introduces an element of callousness into a government that purports to legislate compassion. And the judgment of government officials as to whose cause is to be taken up assuage and who must simply grin and bear it knows no limitations. All actions in life, even those that ought to be private concerns, over which public officials have no grounds to issue judgment, are nevertheless subject to censure under the argument that government, by creating the conditions which create a stable civil society, makes free action possible and therefore is responsible for prosperity.

Enter Donald Trump and his shaming of iconic motorcycle company Harley-Davidson following its announcement production will be moving overseas. As a private entity, Harley-Davidson has every right to make whatever decisions it thinks are in its best interests, for whatever reason it deems fit. Government has no right to make demands of Harley-Davidson; it does not own the company simply because it is the authoritative entity of the country in which it happens to be headquarters.

Yet, this is the implication of the president’s economic protectionist policies and rhetoric. In taking to Twitter to say that no other country should build Harley-Davidson, he asserts ownership over the company:

If individual customers of Harley are angered by their business decisions, that is one thing; the purchasing power of the consumer is an extension of their sovereignty. What one consumes says something about the values one supports and individuals have a right to dissent to  business decisions by taking their money elsewhere in future. Such an approach allows consumers to exercise their discretion while still allowing those with a different viewpoint free to do the same.

The president’s words, however, carry with them an implicit threat: behave in a manner we deem fit, or face the consequences. He threatens not only to foment a public backlash against Harley-Davidson, but to impose new taxes upon the company if they move production.

The idea that other nations should never build the company’s motorcycles rests on the idea that they are an American product. This is certainly true. Beyond their economic value as a well-produced motorcycle, there is cultural relevance to Harley-Davidson as a brand. It is the amorphous concept of cultural ownership to which Donald Trump appeals when he speaks of anger and consequences for moving production of the storied bikes overseas.

It is not simply that the needs of economic resurgence on which the president has staked so much of his populist messaging are a claim that Harley-Davidson must obey, although this is integral to the logic, if one might call it that, of economic protectionism, but that the company owes some sort of allegiance to its customers and the nation at large. It’s as if, once the bikes are sold into private ownership, the company somehow loses control of the brand it has created. The rationale goes something like this: yes, Harley-Davidson makes the bikes, but they do not have ownership over the way they are used in society. over the symbolism their particular product has in certain genres of film and song and in certain subcultures operating in America. For the company to move productions overseas, is a betrayal not only of the country that supposedly has enabled their success by creating the free, stable economic markets upon which they rely for production, but is a betrayal of the culture that has grown around the company’s product as well.

Thus, the president and his supporters are able to portray Harley-Davidson’s announcement as a betrayal of the nation and as a capitulation:

To what exactly it is that Harley-Davidson has surrendered is unclear. High taxes are something against which the president’s own party has been a long-standing opponent. The Republican party platform ought to be sympathetic to the economic woes being imposed on Harley-Davidson–for they had no hand in implementing the tariffs which are now impacting their business.

Instead, the president paints the company as a traitor, highlighting the perversity of a government oriented around the whims and judgments of its officials. Even as the president touts his bid to restore the country to its squandered greatness, he attacks those companies whose private actions are responsible for creating prosperity. Government is not a creator; it relies upon the production of others in order to carry out its many programs. This is the real barbarous morality behind a government of discretion: it takes from those to whom it denies it protection. Harley-Davidson has angered the president so, despite the fact that Harley-Davidson is a successful company whose profits the government has enjoyed, the hardship imposed on them by policies over which they have no control is ignored in the face of their supposed betrayal. They are not extended the hand of government protection and, presumably, will be excluded from the new prosperity the president hopes to usher in, at least this is what his threat of new taxation implies.

But the greatness of America is not in the managerial style of the president. In fact, the greatness of America has not a whit to do with politics or the public sector. Successful companies are not owned or subject to behavioral oversight by government officials who believe that public benefits create the stable framework in which business can be done.

The greatness of America is in the enterprising individual who applies their skill and their reason to the creation and sale of a product that provides some end product desired by the public. Protectionism damages this by delegitimizing those who fail to follow absolutely the diktats of government’s opinion. But, however much elected officials would like to believe otherwise, protectionism cannot bolster the country if it hurts even one of its citizens. Harm done to individuals is not sufferable on the rationale that it advances a greater end.A whole is worth exactly the sum of its parts; when one is diminished the whole is diminished as well.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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