The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Treasonous Clerk: Empire of Addiction, Part I
James Matthew Wilson - 03/20/09
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In the mainstream of American politics, there are only two acceptable positions—only two voices ever allowed to speak loud enough to inform federal policy without being instantly slandered in the press and excluded from the halls of government.  The supposed “conservative” one advocates the expansion of American economic and political influence across the face of the earth by means of economic and military might.  That which passes quite respectably for liberal argues, “Yes, let’s do become the Nomos of the Earth, but let’s do it to others the same way we did it to ourselves; let’s slowly dissolve the bonds, traditions, and practices of every other country, until every country becomes any country, which in turn means they’ll all just be our country.”  The difference is no greater than that, and neither ever states the obvious foundation of our foreign policy: a dependence on resources abroad for a concentrated, addictive, and, in a sense, fictive economic growth at home.  Because both mistake the growth in U.S. capital with the securing of an economic empire, and because both mistake the securing of an economic empire for flourishing, they are equally culpable in undermining secure and lasting economic prosperity for the country they take turns ruling.

A couple years ago, in a short essay, I observed, “The chief difference between this second Bush administration and the Kerry administration that was not to be is that the former is unapologetic about using military power in support of American corporate interests.” The intended emphasis was on “unapologetic,” for, as is now quite clear, the invasion of Iraq stands out in the history of American foreign policy not as an atypical act of imperial ambition, but as an unusually crass, self-righteous, and devastating one (or rather, the brashness and the ugliness were televised).  One can look back to American interventions in Latin America for similarly aggressive invasions, but these were comparatively restricted in scale; one has to look back to the turn of the Twentieth Century to find America’s unquestionable military benevolence promoted with such temerity.  As we shall see in the coming years, the Obama administration will get our country “back on track” by limiting its economic imperial ambitions as much as possible to that which can be accomplished without the massive expenditure of military might.  That would have been necessary anyway, given how much of that might has been squandered, but now it comes with the soft looks of an apologist.

The first “apologetic” shot in its new foreign policy will no doubt be a return to the principles of free trade that certain economists try to pass off as a scientific approach to prosperity.  And so, one reads with a sense of stoic contempt the charade of a debate the New York Times tried to kindle on its Editorial page this week.  The Editors tell us,

The answer is clear: Trade will play an important role in the world’s eventual recovery, transmitting economic growth from one country to the next. Protectionism leads to further protectionism, and yielding to its temptation could unleash destructive trade wars that would crush any chance of recovery.

Such blanket bloviation merits considered response, but the Times was not done.  The editorial proceeds to catalog a wide variety of supposed instances of “subtle” protectionism.  Every act by a government to regulate its foreign trade is thus judged de facto protectionism and contrary to the spirit of recovery and new growth the Editors promise us will come if only we can allow the benevolent mindless process of free-trade license to accomplish its work unhindered.  The slightest ambivalence—let us repeat, the slightest ambivalence—about the necessity of free trade strikes the Editors as dangerous heterodoxy:

President Obama’s choice for United States trade representative, Ron Kirk, appears ambivalent about the value of free trade. As part of his confirmation hearings this week, Mr. Kirk testified that he would work to expand trade but also argued “that not all Americans are winning from it and that our trading partners are not always playing by the rules.”

Such “worrisome” (quoth the Times) statements would seem to indicate that the Obama administration is less than entirely committed to the universal expansion of free trade across the face of the earth.  The retarding of such expansion will either slow or undermine the world economic recovery from our present depression.  The editors therefore ask the Obama administration and all Americans to surrender the use of their reason and simply trust that the gospel of free trade will set us free from all our material woes.

Such a bold demand for “faith” is problematic in itself, and is as “worrisome” here as it was in the months before the launching of the Iraq War, when all true patriots were told they must trust the President that he knew where weapons of mass destruction were hiding even if nobody else did.  But we should pause and consider not merely why this new faith would be far more sinful than the old one, insofar as it causes us to deny our own sense and reason.  We should also observe that the object of this faith—free trade—has been the cause of many of our economic troubles and symptomatic of others, and so could hardly become their solution just by its continuing unquestioned and unabated.

Some econometric modeling and our shared experience of the last few decades tell us that, indeed, free trade promotes a kind of growth.  Enterprises that have already attained a certain scale can become gigantic simply by taking advantage of the free movement of goods and the relocation of physical plants across national borders.  Thus, clothiers can offer cheaper goods to American customers by relocating their manufacturing facilities abroad, avoiding U.S. tax rates and saving to some extent on labor costs.  Large retailers also benefit, because they can import cheap manufactured goods and sell them in staggering quantities at prices most persons can—for a time—easily afford.

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