All of the usual suspects are freaking out over Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum. Most of it is by silly people. Some of it is simply the innumerate throwing yet another tantrum about the bad man who vexes them. Some of the hysteria is due to the fact that people in the chattering classes were sure they had talked this bit of reality into going away for good. Reality, however, is that thing that does not go away when you stop believing in it. The reality of trade is now back.
The amusing thing about trade debates among the chattering classes is that they never bother to mention the trade-offs that come with trade policy. Trade is like any other public policy. It is all about trade-offs. Our rulers, however, were sure they had sacralized their preferred set of trade-offs a long time ago. It turns out that the only people on whom this worked were the innumerate numskulls in the press. The rest of us remain skeptical about “free trade.”
Trade between countries is a net benefit to both countries. Open trade with Canada means they can sell more beaver hats and hockey sticks to Americans, thus making the typical Canadian richer. Similarly, it means Americans can sell more apple pies and boomsticks to Canadians, thus making the typical American richer. In reality, there will be Canadians who suffer from free trade with America and Americans who also suffer in the exchange. That is how the world works.
While the hockey playing folks of northern Virginia will benefit from cheap hockey sticks from Canada, the suddenly unemployed hockey stick makers in Minnesota are the ones paying the price for it. Similarly, the apple growers of Canada get stuck with the bill for the suddenly cheap apple products in Toronto. The hidden cost of free trade is a lot of people you do not know losing their jobs. When you are the guy getting the pink slip, the cost is not hidden and that has a social cost, as well.
Now, trade can be beneficial to both countries in that it promotes efficiency. The lazy and unscrupulous hockey stick makers in Maine, suddenly have to compete with the crafty canucks. This means better hockey sticks, but also less waste. Protectionism, like all public polices, comes with a cost too. That cost is more often than not carried by the consumer. Worse yet, it often promotes the sorts of corruption of public officials that erodes public trust in institutions.
That is why the ruling class is in a panic over the Trump trade policies. It is not about the cost of steel and aluminum. It is not about the possibility of retaliation. The real fear here is that Trump is re-opening the debate about trade. It means all of these trade-offs that come with trade between nations will have to be discussed. The billionaire class that has benefited from the current set of polices, is in no mood to defend their fiefs from the rabble. So, in waddles the clown army.
The current trade regime, has proven to be the boondoggle critics like Pat Buchanan warned about 30 years ago. Open trade with Canada, an English-speaking first world country, is mostly beneficial. Trade with Mexico, a third world narco-state that now operates as a pirate’s cove, has been a disaster. NAFTA has made Mexico a massive loophole in American labor, tax, environmental and trade policy. A loophole ruthlessly exploited by alien predators like China.
The current trade regime is also at the heart of the cosmopolitan globalism that seeks to reduce nations to a fiction and people to economic inputs. This neoliberal orthodoxy has eroded social capital to the point where the white middle class is nearing collapse. It is not just America. The collapsing fertility rates in the Occident are part of the overall cultural collapse going in the West. Slapping tariffs on Chinese steel is not going to arrest this trend, but it does open the door a debate about it.
That is the reality our betters would like to avoid. What defines France is the shared character and shared heritage of the people we call French. What defines a people is not the cost of goods or the price of labor. What defines a people is what they love together and what they hate together. It is the collection of tastes and inclinations, no different than family traditions, which have been cultivated and passed down from one generation to the next.
Even putting the cultural arguments aside, global capitalism erodes the civic institutions that hold society together. Instead of companies respecting the laws of host nations and working to support the welfare of the people of that nation, business is encouraged to cruise the world looking for convenient ports. There is a word for this type of work. It is called piracy. Global firms flit from port to port, with no interest other than the short term gain to be made at that stop. Globalism is rule by pirates.
That is the reason for the panic in the media. To question “free trade” is to question the arrangements that keeps the current regime in place. It may seem like a small thing, tariffs on steel, but it is the sort of thing that can unravel the entire project, because it legitimizes the sorts of questions that threaten the regime. To his credit, Trump seems to get this, which is why he has pressed ahead with this. He is flipping over an important table in this fight.