“Do my columns make any sense?”

From the same man who asked, “Are libertarians and communists any different?” comes another compelling question: “Does free trade lead to totalitarianism?

[Update: Tim Boyd provides his own response.]

I submitted a rather lengthy response to his column. It may take a while for The Hustler to post it, so I’ve copied it here below the fold…

[Redacted’s]’s columns are often marked by specious logic and pernicious nationalism, but this week’s is particularly egregious. I’ll limit my response to a few key points.

His fear of a loss of sovereignty to the WTO reflects a common misunderstanding of the organization. The WTO as such has no sovereignty and serves only as a forum for settling disputes among trading nations; it cannot compel them to drop their tariffs or lower their subsidies. As a member, the United States remains free to enact whatever foolish trade polices the [redacteds] of the world suggest; the WTO ensures only that our trading partners will not retaliate in kind until after a lengthy process of negotiation and review. In other words, mercantilist trade wars are still depressingly common. They’re just not as capricious as they were before.

[Rdacted] points to the transformation of the Common Market into the European Union as an alarming precedent for global government. But that change involved national debates about new treaties that reflected the economics, politics, and culture of the region. A similar but much more difficult process would have to occur before the U.S. and other nations could possibly join into a transnational empire. There are many problems in the world worth worrying about today — a global coup staged by free market economists isn’t one of them.

Mr. [redacted]’s excessive skepticism of global institutions is more than equaled by his lamentable faith in our national government. He speaks of protectionist policies as if they represented the will of the American people and our choice of destiny. In reality, such policies are almost always designed for the good of some citizens at the expense of everyone else. Politicians learned long ago the strategy of “concentrate benefits, diffuse costs.” Thus they approve subsidies and tariffs that confer huge benefits on the lucky few in an affected industry while imposing tiny individual costs on the millions of American consumers and businessmen who face higher prices and diminished choices. And those tiny costs add up, creating deadweight losses that hold our economy down.

Unfortunately, the cost of our wasteful protectionism does not stay contained within our borders. It extends to the developing world, where struggling workers are kept in poverty by the duties we impose on the products they create. Perhaps I’d be more sympathetic to Mr. [redacted]’s arguments if he showed as much concern for the approximately one billion people living on less than $1 a day as he does for American computer programmers who can no longer command the premium salaries they did in the 1990s.

Yet what disturbs me most about Mr. [redacted]’s column is his collectivist nationalism. In his mind, we are either Americans or we are “the assets of a transnational trading block.” Personally, I’m glad to be both an American and a citizen of the world. I woke up this morning in a bed designed by a Swedish furniture company. I then got dressed in inexpensive clothes that I suspect were imported from Asia or South America, but being in a public place at the moment I can’t take them off to check the tags. I next went to work and made espresso from beans grown in India, roasted in California, and finally brewed on a machine manufactured (yes, manufactured!) in Seattle. While there I played a CD recorded in Britain by a singer who grew up in the former USSR. Afterwards I picked up lunch from a nearby Thai restaurant opened a few months ago by an immigrant family. I enjoyed it with a can of Coca-Cola made with high-fructose corn syrup provided by American farmers; I would have preferred that it were sweetened by pure cane sugar imported from Mozambique, but protectionist handouts for the U.S. corn and sugar industries deny me the pleasure. I sit now at an off-brand computer assembled from parts made all over the globe running software developed by a U.S. company. I’m not a world traveling jetsetter, but with just a few moments reflection I can see how global trade has enriched my daily life in countless ways, both cultural and economic. I suspect that most Americans could do the same.

Of course, some people are truly hurt by the transition to a global economy. We should be cognizant of their needs and, if appropriate, compensate them for their losses. But closing ourselves off from the world would be throwing a very precious baby out with the bathwater. To turn our backs on trade for bad economic reasons would be lamentable. To constrain our pursuits of happiness to appease a misplaced sense of nationalism and collective identity would be even worse. It would be — dare I say it? — un-American.


4 thoughts on ““Do my columns make any sense?””

  1. Two things: first, I hate to align myself anywhere near that guy, but his worries about the impact of global economics on a nation’s culture are, although horribly conveyed, reasonable. The U.S. has long been immune to this issue, since it’s always been our culture that’s being exported, but it’s been an area of serious concern for many nations, and not just the Third Worlders. As the world slowly develops, and non-U.S. ideas and products get backed with money, you can expect to see a lot more of these Burchards.

    Second, and the major reason why I wanted to post, I gotta tell you: this whole Libertarian Girl hoax has been the highlight of my week. If I was a smarter man, I would make some incisive analogy to this episode and libertarian bloggers in general, who spend their time and energy eagerly discussing – and falling in love with – superficially attractive ideas that are in reality old excuses for bourgeois tyranny sitting in their mother’s basement.

    But I’m not, so I’ll just throw out the basic outline of what that analogy would look like and leave it at that.

  2. No deep thoughts here. Simply want to say that if you want to describe a stodgy curmudgeon without sounding like one….NEVER use the words “stodgy curmudgeon.” Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Quiet Declarations
  4. Sure, our culture is often one of the most visibly exported in the world. But look around you: I doubt you can find a greater importer of culture than the United States. We’ve adapted to cultural importation so well here, we accept outside influences so seamlessly, that we hardly even recognize the process happening. I’d argue that our culture is much better off for it.

    I’m always skeptical of arguments about the need to protect a nation’s culture from being overrun because they are so often terribly elitist. Westerners who celebrate diversity and rebel against cultural conservatism at home deny the same enjoyment to citizens of other countries. While seemingly respecting the world’s cultures they regard them as too weak to survive the presence of McDonalds and Britney Spears. They define cultures by the sweeping characterizations found in travel guides rather than by the perspective of individuals within them. If the guides appear more “western” in 2005 than they did in 1985, they conclude that cultural imperialism must be to blame.

    I submit that as liberals we should instead look at things from an individual point of view. While diversity between cultures is on the decline, the diversity of options available to individuals within them is going through the roof. Globalization allows people born into areas that were previously monolithic to explore a variety of identities and enjoy a more cosmopolitian lifestyle. The changes can be as profound as discovering different religions or as minor as being able to buy a taco value meal. But if such influences take hold there’s a very simple reason for it: many people within the area or culture have decided that they want to try them out. It’s going to take a very compelling case to convince me that we or anyone else ought to restrain their freedom and limit their choices.

    You write that as time goes on we’re going to see a lot more [redacteds] rising up from within the affected countries as they attain more wealth. I agree, but there is nothing surprising in this. The developed world is full of narrow-minded cultural conservatives. In enlightened France, bureaucrats impose ceilings on the amount of American programming that can be shown on TV and try to prevent the adoption of American words like “Walkman” or “email.” Here in Virginia, one house of the state legislature passed a bill that would have imposed fines on people whose clothing revealed a glimpse of their underwear. When such stodgy curmudgeons are Western we ridicule them; when they’re foreign, anti-globalists praise them for defending their culture. Pat Buchanan style conservatives at least practice more consistency in their views.

    [Yes, the Pat Buchanan line was a cheap shot. Consider it payback for your “bourgeois tyranny” statement. Cheers!]

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