What’s called “economic nationalism” is really just a cover for a political power grab and the manipulation of the public. The price is paid by you and me and everyone.
When aggression is military, each government attempts to protect its citizens from that which is unleashed by foreigners. But when aggression is economic, it is unleashed by each government against its own citizens.
The very best system of national defense is one that reduces the prospect of war. It is one that diminishes the need to actually send into battle war machines and manpower. So anyone sincerely committed to a program of using trade policy as a means of strengthening national defense supports as an indispensable cornerstone of that policy free trade.
These foreign-government interventions supply no good ethical excuse for “retaliation.” In fact, losing nothing to which they are entitled, home-country producers themselves act unethically when they demand that the home government inflict upon fellow citizens the same unjust depravations that foreign governments inflict upon their citizens.
After all these efforts, all these interventions and tax-back loans, nothing could prepare the company to deal with a loss of its foreign markets. This is why the company said this week that it would move some production overseas due to increased costs from the EU's retaliatory tariffs against the Trump administration's taxes on imports of steel and aluminum.
The hoopla and hysteria about balance of trade deficits, and that somehow “others” are taking advantage of us because we buy more from them than they buy from us, in fact, is the result of an analytical myopia of failing to “follow the money” through all the different forms and channels that import and export spending can take, both for an individual or the country as a whole. Once you do, you realize that the balance of trade “problem” is all an illusion.
Economic nationalism, characterized by restriction on trade and migration toward the goal of political control, has a different sales pitch and cultural feel from the central planning of generations past. But it is no less an attack on free enterprise, industrial rivalry, and consumer control of production. Ultimately it is just another way to undermine property rights, freedom, and the limits on the power of the state.
It’s the 295th birthday of Adam Smith, champion of trade and the philosophical mastermind who explained the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. And yet, on this day, after so many centuries of intellectual work to promote free trade, a trade war is upon us.
We’ve got a genuine problem, a new crop of world leaders who are willing to sacrifice economic rationality, international cooperation, and world peace to feed their nationalistic political ambitions via the brute force of protectionism. Trump is leading the way.
The company ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment) in Shanghai had employed as many 75,000, and does business in 160 nations, while relying heavily on importing American component parts and manufacturing cellphones and other digital equipment. The US Commerce Department came down hard on the company for dealings with North Korea and Iran. It fined the company $1.2 billion and banned American exports to the company for fully seven years. It was all part of the “get tough” policy that Trump has been promoting his entire career.
The legal uncertainties surrounding trade with China have sent people looking for historical precedent for this mess. One jumps out: the targeted trade embargo that the US imposed against Britain in 1807. Let’s look at the parallels and lessons.
The results of this war are as follows. US consumers get to pay more for imports from China. American companies lose markets as Chinese consumers and importers turn to other countries to provide wines, pork, and fruit. And this is only round one. The financial markets have suffered a terrible quarter one, just as all this interventionist rhetoric picked up steam. We are doing ourselves no favors here. This is not how a nation becomes great again.
In a political sense, Trump might be onto something, temporarily, in the most cynical way. It is very easy for the hoi polloi to think in terms of national collectives. It’s us vs them, our guys vs. their guys. The trouble is that the world is no longer organized primarily along these nationalistic lines. We all depend on the productivity of each other and therefore on trade with each other, regardless of the nation states that trap us in their borders. The other main problem with trade war: it is a ruse to distract citizens from their real oppressor which is their own government.