In attempting to reconcile Trumpism with American conservatism, and upon discovering that our new president seems to favor a set of policies that look a lot like those of the party he chose to represent, one inevitably confronts the outlier: trade. The president seems on board with the Republican mainstream on reducing deficits, lowering tax rates, taking cronyism out of the tax code, reducing government-regulation of the private sector, etc. But international trade is the great divider: Trumponomic trade policy appears to represent heresy against the church of Adam Smith. With his disdain for NAFTA and TPP and his interest in a border-adjusted trade tax, the president gives the impression that he does not appreciate the benefits of free trade. Why do you suppose that is?
A refresher: free trade is a sacred Republican cow. Conservatives think trade wars are the worst thing you can do to an economy short of centrally-planning it. An irony: free trade is a key component of globalism, and globalism (open borders and all) is quintessential Obamaism, which is what the president has railed against and the nation voted against. (Note: before jumping to associate nationalism with Nazi or Italian fascism, you should remember that for nearly a century globalism has been associated with Soviet communism and socialism.) A theory: the president understands Milton Friedman, he is aware of the Smoot-Hawley debacle, and he gets it that free trade is the rising tide that normally lifts all national boats, but he is not satisfied with the vision of an America that no longer owns the biggest boat. The president understands the theory of comparative advantage, he knows that displaced steel workers and auto workers might eventually find higher-level/higher-income work instead of wasting their talents on lower-level jobs that could be performed in Asia for lower salaries, and he knows that free trade should enable the average American to continue to buy more and more stuff. What’s not to like?
The argument here is that the president’s America-First nationalism relates more to culture and patriotism than to trade, and that the president does not want trade wars, that he generally favors free trade, albeit subject to two major exceptions: (i) he is not interested in free-trade deals with nations that are dedicated to surpassing us as an industrial and military power through domestic subsidies, theft of intellectual property, dumping, currency manipulation, tariffs, over-regulation of US products and services, and other means of advancing their domestic industries and inhibiting American industries (e.g., China); and (ii) he is not interested in free-trade deals that are too fair, that leave money on the table – either deals with a peer nation that favor that nation, or deals with a weaker nation that fail to exploit that nation’s inferiority. To him, re-doing NAFTA means obtaining concessions from Mexico.
Trump surely understands that it is possible to maintain economic growth despite running trade deficits, that global free trade should increase the world’s aggregate economic growth and prosperity. But he recognizes that economic growth, while enabling Americans to buy more stuff and better healthcare, can still leave us with lots of unemployment and under-employment, as machine continues to replace man – and as America increases its production of replaceable men (and women). It might also leave us with diminished industrial and military power. The imbalance between the employed and the unemployed can be modulated by expanding the levels of direct-welfare (money) and de facto welfare (government jobs), though those actions might be socially unwise. But the reduction in our industrial and military strength could be a major mistake. The president may well be thinking, what is the point of globalistic free trade if the consequences are an increased level of unemployed or underemployed citizens and a decreased level of national security, in return for our being able to buy more stuff?
Few doubt that the American economy of the future should be built around our world-leadership in information technology, but what if our displaced auto workers and our new college-graduates were not sufficiently educated and trained to enable us to maintain our leadership in IT, either because of the failures of our educational system and our culture or because everything we invent or create is eventually stolen or reverse-engineered by others? What if one day we woke up and realized that we could not produce a car or an electronic device without outsourcing the production to an unfriendly nation, maybe an uncooperative one? What if we could not maintain our military superiority because China or Iran or Russia, by legal or illegal means, had become our technological peer?
Free trade might be a good thing in a utopian global-economy, at least for a while, but maybe not so good when we are no longer a benevolent World Number One, no longer able to keep the South China Sea shipping lanes open for the purpose of accommodating that free trade, and there are no other qualified and willing volunteers to take on that responsibility. America, most of the European Union and NATO, and most of the other alumni of the old British Empire are pretty much all that is left of the “free world,” and we are surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Iran, most of the rest of the Middle East (other than Israel), China, North Korea, etc., most of whom are openly striving to overtake us and perhaps kill us. Few of these hostile players want to play by Marquess of Queensberry rules, such as free trade, except when they think it suits their purposes.
Joseph Kennedy is reported to have said, “I would be willing to part with half of what I had if I could be sure of keeping, under law and order, the other half.” In the same spirit, your humble scribe would rather be a prosperous and free American than a super-rich Iranian and would be satisfied, even delighted, to leave some consumer goods on the table in order to have an American government that was willing to engage in a little economic nationalism in order to be able to defend the country against predators determined to dominate us.