Free Trade Ideologues Morph into a Faction

Agreement, acceptance, acquiescence

David Griswold, a fellow at George Mason University’s free-marketMercatus Center, had an op-ed in the Los Angeles Timeson Mondayarguing that globalization has not hurtU.S.manufacturing but, rather, should be laudedfor boosting American manufacturing by 40 percent over the past 20 years.

The catch? Manufacturing isn’t the same as it was two decades ago. Oh, and it also produces fewer jobs.

“We produce more manufacturing value with fewer employees than in years past because today’s workers are so much more productive,” Griswold writes. “They are better educated, equipped with more sophisticated capital machinery and turn out more valuable products than their parents’ generation. And as a result they are better paid, with total manufacturing payrolls rising during the last decade even as the number of workers declined.”

Well, this is all verynicefor manufacturers. And it’s very good for workers who are more sophisticated and better educated than the high-school educated workers who used to fill traditional manufacturing jobs. But Griswoldavoidsaddressing the concerns of reasonable people unhappy withourtrade deals.

Here’s a question: Why do smart people always think they understand other people’s interests better than those people understand them? And why do so many “principles worth fighting for” seem ever so conveniently to align with the interests of the smart set?

Democracy is, at some level, about competing interests. Middle-class and working-classvoters have been on the losing end of elections a long time now. The winners haveeither been woefully unable to persuade them that they have their back or are stubbornly missing something important. You cannot ask people to heroically vote against their own interests cycle after cycle and then be surprised when they say, “Enough!” It’s not wrong for them to ask what’s in it for them and the answer had better be perusasive or they will fall back on the easy promises of free stuff or the validation of a sincere, if only vague policy sympathy.

These voters have been dwindling from Republican rolls for a generation. The conservative response has been to tout their “social conservative” credentials as a way to keep them turning out against Democrats. But the power to impress these voters with social issues is now gone. Conservatives have failed miserably to defend the common culture that also was of deep concern to these voters. They are now viewed as weak and ineffective (“Sad!” as Donald Trump might say). So these voters are mobilized and justly angry.

Some liked Bernie Sanders because they figured they might as well “get theirs”; others like Trump because he openly questions free-trade absolutism. This isn’t about principles. This is about interests. And for now, these voters view their interests as having very little to do with the people they view as inhabiting “the establishment.”

This could have been avoided. Republicans might have done a better job of attending to both a common culture (immigration; picking intelligent battles in the culture wars) and to our common interests (sometimes, the little guy needs to win!). Instead, GOP leaderswere more concerned about policy “correctness” and abstract notions of what was best for other people without looking at the actual and immediate effects of their policy preferences.

So what are the smart guys saying in response? They tell us that the working class votersare just ignorant or backward and it’s clear theydon’t know what’s in their own best interest. This is a losing strategy, to say the least. For smart people, they are very short sighted.

Their long term interests (to say nothing of the interests of the nation) are better served by a more politic response to the question of free trade. The result will be something even worse if we destroy whatever thread of hope we have at persuading working- and middle-class votersthat more freedom is generally a good thing in trade. Free trade absolutism—of the kind that does not take into consideration particulars of circumstance and politics—elevates the short term economic interests of the few to the level of “principle” and, worse, it betrays its backers as either ideologues or a faction. Actually, maybe they are both.

About Julie Ponzi

Julie Ponzi is Senior Editor of American Greatness. She holds an M.A. in political philosophy and American politics from the Claremont Graduate University. She was an Earhart Fellow and a Bradley Foundation Fellow while studying at Claremont and also earned a Publius Fellowship from The Claremont Institute. Formerly the Director of Academic Programs at the Claremont Institute, she also taught American politics at Azusa Pacific University. Her writing has appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, The Online Library of Law and Liberty, The Columbus Dispatch, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Washington Times. She was also a regular and long-time contributor to the Ashbrook Center's blog, No Left Turns. She lives in California. You can follow her on Twitter at @JuliePonzi

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16 responses to “Free Trade Ideologues Morph into a Faction”

  1. A fantastic look at how Republicans have become Democrats: we now better than you how to take care of you; you’re ignorant but we’re smart. I.e. We’re from the gov’t and we’re here to help.

  2. Ms. Ponzi succeeds in being far more charitable to conservatives than they deserve. I have tried without success to find a single principle that is both (1) embraced by GOP leadership or the leaders of the conservative movement, and (2) is adverse to their personal economic interests. I’ve long been cynical about the Democrats’ motives; cynicism directed at my own side is still a fairly new thing for me. But I’m getting better at it.

    • Well, I was a low level GOP leader, but in some ways an opinion leader in GOP politics, and I have argued that social security and other “senior friendly” laws and programs are not ordered to the common good for a long time. I am now 68, and living well in part due to these element of gerontocracy. Moreover, I am the father of a large family. We had 8 children. One consequence was that for decades we paid almost no income tax. But, I worked for a candidate who urged Americans to shift to a flat tax, which would have been very tough on my family. Just sayin’ so that you know that people like me exist.

      • I don’t doubt that people like you exist — I like to think of myself as one of those people. My comment was directed toward the leadership of the GOP and most (but not all) movement conservatives. I simply can’t think of a time in recent history where Ryan, Boehner or McConnell defied the Chamber of Commerce over a matter of principle. Maybe you can help me out with an example.

      • But the government shouldn’t be subsidizing baby creation. And now, the older generations live better than the younger ones because of increased life span, higher taxes, and a higher retiree to worker ratio.

      • You did pay payroll taxes. So do I and so did my dad. We all paided to the system. The problem with how it now stands is that it is woefully mismanaged.

  3. One more thing. If this site is to live up to its promise, could we have one, just ONE article that does not read like Trump campaign material. There, I have said it.

    • If you perceive a call for conservatives to be more concerned about the economic well being of Americans as Trump campaign material, I think that says a lot more about you and conservatives than about the author or Trump. Or is ambivalence about Americans a new “core principle” of conservatism?

    • Perhaps it’s just that Trump agrees with Sir James Goldsmith, who in the ’90s was prophetic about the hidden costs of global trade treaties. YouTube has Charlie Rose’s Goldsmith interview, which is a nice introduction to his ideas. A quote I like from the website: “It must surely be a mistake to adopt an economic policy which makes you rich if you eliminate your national workforce and transfer production abroad, and which bankrupts you if you continue to employ your own people.”

  4. The problem is that free trade doesn’t mean what most people think it means.
    We keep getting all kinds of trade deals from Washington that are touted as “free trade” which have baked-in systemic advantages to every party OTHER THAN the USA. Some of these deals go so far as to explicitly add “development funds” or “investment” that comes from US tax dollars on TOP of the structural advantages built into the deals. That is why Trump is on target when he criticizes the way Japan and China (among others) totally avoid American imports as our trade deficits continue to grow ad infinitum.
    Unfortunately, in all the backlash, I am a bit concerned that ACTUAL free trade might get thrown out the window along with the “free trade” deals that we all loathe. The economics of REAL free trade are mathematically certain and clear. Both sides benefit when trade is unencumbered by neo mercantilist BS like Japan’s “inspections” or the currency exchange game played by China.
    We hate what is going on now, so the question is: do we go all-out protectionist and end up in a trade war or do we demand fair deals (as Trump has been saying) and try to get actual free trade again?

    • Other nation’s claim that they need additional inspections of US made goods is nuts. We have the highest consumer protection standards on the planet.

  5. To be fair, it is government itself that causes companies to move manufacturing and other operations overseas. High taxes, high regulations, high minimum wage (relatively) and the inability to bring in qualified immigrants to build products here rather than overseas. If we had fixed these things long ago, we’d be a manufacturing juggernaut. But sadly, we are now not just exporting jobs, but business creation, competition, and brainpower. I once looked up a Taiwanese company out of curiosity and 9 out of 10 of its chief executives were American educated. We need to start asking ourselves why that company wasn’t created here, why those American educated executives aren’t working here.

    • High taxes, high regulation and high minimum wages all exist because of the lack of opposition to such policies. Why waste energy fighting such nonsense when you can just move to Mexico.