The right’s brittle support for trade

As the American right jettisons support for international trade, globalist conservatives despair – and rightly so. An insular world is less prosperous and less peaceful. Opposition to trade seems to fly in the face of the core beliefs of Republicans in the United States and worries Conservatives in Canada, where broadly conservative pundit Ezra Levant has renounced his support for trade and Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch romanticises Trump’s victory.

Is the shift really so surprising? Since the end of the Cold War, the left has accepted limited support for markets, but conservatives have backed off of their deeply rooted support for trade. Many are worried by things like the ‘elephant chart’, shared widely by conservatives and progressives alike on social media, and what it means for… well, what trade means. But trade long ago became more a talking point than a pillar of conservative policy beliefs. Rhetoric doesn’t mean much without understanding. The treatment of trade as zero-sum should have been a warning for anyone counting on robust support for trade to drive the conservative policy agenda.

Either trade is always positive sum and worthy of support, or it is not and it should be analysed and managed. The former leads us (and nearly all economists) toward a presumption in favour of free trade, while down the latter path lies a presumption of protectionism. There are many examples that could have warned conservatives they were on that protectionist path:

  • It is not the government’s job to support the value of homes by restricting what sorts of buildings can be built where any more than it’s the government’s job to impose restrictions on goods built in other countries that would compete with domestic goods. But many conservatives would balk at policies that might reduce home values.
  • It’s not the government’s job to prop up the value of domestic labour with work visa restrictions any more than it is to impose import quotas to prop up the value of domestically made goods. But many conservatives want tight immigration restrictions, believing that immigration hurts the domestic economy.
  • It’s not the government’s job to subsidize living in bigger, car-dependent housing in the suburbs or the country any more than it is the government’s job to subsidize companies failing the test of competition in the market. But conservatives don’t urge rural folks to move to the cities, or force them to bear the cost of country living with comparable services.
  • It’s not the government’s job to decide what kind of training your hairdresser needs, any more than it’s the government’s job to determine whether or not what you decide to eat is healthy enough. But conservatives have fallen disappointingly short when it comes to opposing occupational licensing.

Again: either trade is positive sum, or it is not. Conservatives and progressives have together hollowed out the support for trade that would have explained to them why markets are effective, and a trading world is a freer, richer, and more peaceful one.

A conservative needn’t be a militant free trader. The fact that a policy yields benefits doesn’t automatically mean it’s the right policy, any more than a policy’s costs are proof that it’s the wrong one. But conservatives whose belief in free trade is rooted in the understanding that trade is always beneficial will more carefully weigh the benefits of a given intervention against the costs of undertaking it. They will be less likely to look at a world with costs and wonder why they ought to support trade when things are tough.

Both Conservatives and free trading Liberals in Canada have an opportunity to learn the importance of grounding their beliefs in understanding to withstand a populist wave that could throw so much of what many of them have been fighting for under the bus. Or they can continue down the path they’ve been travelling. Just remember: it’s not a new one.

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