In The American Conservative, Micah Meadowcroft examines the words of one of Your Survival Guy’s favorite presidents, “Silent Cal” Coolidge, who is known for saying, “The business of America is business,” but who actually said, “After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” Meadowcroft then gets into the current state of the debate over free trade and protectionism in America and within the Republican Party itself. He concludes:
There has been much renewed discussion of tariffs and protectionism in recent weeks, especially in the Wall Street Journal, no doubt as much prompted by former President Donald Trump’s positive poll figures as by former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s new book, No Trade Is Free. “Trump’s Trade War Was a Loser” said Phil Gramm and Donald J. Boudreaux. Then the next week, from Lighthizer, “In Defense of the Trump Trade Policy.” The same day, the Journal published former Senator Pat Toomey’s negative review of Lighthizer’s book. And Monday, lest the USTR have the last word, another letter from Gramm and Boudreaux. This discourse reveals a degree of incommensurability, for while both sides are ostensibly discussing a thing called trade and the policy surrounding it, what and how they measure or assess successful policy are entirely different.
Indeed, it is the same difference as illustrated by the Coolidge quote, both the real and imaginary. Like “the business of America is business,” free traderism is a model, an ideological statement of how the world ought to be—“business” or “trade” abstracted from specifics or political context. It can guarantee increased efficiency, with certain related numbers going up, but declines to acknowledge that some industries are better than others, or the difference between bad jobs and good. It cannot guarantee that improvements in one area make up for losses and destruction elsewhere.
Meanwhile, parallel to Cal’s actual description of the American people, protectionism is not a model, but an active intervention in a dynamic situation, and a political response to historical circumstances. Trade, and a particular tariff, is a political calculus; it is a prudential question. There is no “trade” in Plato’s realm of forms; there is particular trade between particular parties and particular nations at a particular point in time.
Even when differences are obvious, the subtle distinctions are often the ones that matter most. They are where there might be a genuine point of opportunity for persuasion. Except for the few true believers in a post-national future—the distinction between global governance and corporate neofeudal scenarios is increasingly one without a difference—even the most ardent free trader will, eventually, acknowledge that some considerations must take precedence to growth for growth’s or efficiency for efficiency’s sake. National interest, in national security terms, trumps ideological purity.
So there is the opportunity: We share a concern for the national interest, populist protectionists and reflexive free traders alike. And there is the risk, too: that we constrain ourselves only to the language of security and defense. For when we consider the American people’s profound concern with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world, the national interest is so much more.
E.J. Smith - Your Survival Guy
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