Has the intellectual debate about free trade been won? The close-to-consensus answer among several scholars discussing that question at Cato last week is “yes.” The better answer is “wrong question.” After all, how much does it really matter that free traders have won the intellectual debate when, in practice, trade policy is distinctly anti-intellectual and free trade is the rare exception, not the rule, around the world?
Consider the just-launched Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. If the free trade consensus were meaningful outside the ivory tower, these negotiations would not take place. At the heart of the talks rests the fallacy that protectionism is an asset to be dispensed with only if reciprocated, in roughly equal measure, by “negotiators” on the other side of the table. But if free trade were the rule, trade policy would have a purely domestic orientation and U.S. barriers would be removed without any need for negotiation because they would be recognized for what they are: taxes on consumers and businesses. It really is that simple.
But the TTIP is shaping up to be the mother of all negotiations: an interminable feast of mercantilist horse-trading, self-serving press conferences, and ever-premature, congratulatory pronouncements all intended to aggrandize negotiators and politicians who thirst to be seen doing something to restore economic hope without having to shake their respective vested interests from their protected perches. It’s all quite nauseating, really, but at least it serves to remind us that free trade is the rare exception, and when all else fails…
Granted, U.S. tariffs are relatively low on average, most quotas have gone away, and most other countries have reduced barriers to trade over the past half century, which has contributed in no small part to improvements in per capita income and quality of life around the world. Why that cause and effect hasn’t reinforced the theory enough to drive a stake through the heart of protectionism is the better question.
In the United States, instead of free trade, we have protectionism in its many guises, including: “Buy American” rules for government procurement; heavily protected services industries; apparently inextinguishable farm subsidies; sugar quotas; green-energy subsidies; industrial policy; the Export-Import bank; antidumping duties; regulatory protectionism masquerading as public health and safety regulations, and; the protectionism euphemistically embedded in so-called free trade agreements in the forms of rules of origin, local content requirements, intellectual property and investment protections, enforceable labor and environmental standards, and special carve-outs that immunize products—even industries—from international competition. In fact, the entire enterprise of trade negotiations is a paean to protectionism, conducted with the utmost care to avoid unsettling, without recompense, the special privileges of the status quo.
How has an intellectual consensus for free trade coexisted with these numerous and metastasizing affronts to it? Protectionism slipped the noose, that’s how.