Atlas Network: Don't Fear Free Trade

The Atlas Economic Research Foundation – a libertarian leaning organization – recently released a video featuring Foundation Vice-President Tom G. Palmer. Titled “Free Trade: The Great Prosperity Machine,” the video aims to make a compelling case for why free trade is good for everyone, not just foreign competitors, and makes reference to the classic libertarian economist Frederic Bastiat. Interested viewers can look here:

However, there are some problems with the video. For one thing, I’m not sure precisely who Palmer thinks his audience is, or who he wants it to be. Is he trying to persuade people on the Left? If so, then I don’t know how effective it is to talk about the benefits of exchange, since most Leftists view the exchanges that go on in trade relationships as fundamentally exploitative.

Moreover, Palmer’s argument that trade generates peace, while it could persuade some people to switch their position, probably won’t make a dent in the hardcore isolationist Left, which views trade as just another element of the military industrial complex and of the globalized order that underlies it. Maybe Palmer intends his video to speak to the more moderate technocratic Left, insofar as he uses scientific metaphors, but this seems like preaching to the choir. The moderate technocratic Left, as personified by Bill Clinton, has often been an ally of the internationally-oriented Right and the libertarian movement when it comes to trade, and I have yet to see any indicators that this attitude is changing.

What about the protectionist Right? Here things aren’t particularly encouraging either.

For example, referring to ports as machines that convert cheap goods into expensive goods, and framing this as a scientific breakthrough which would be lauded by everyone, is simply tone deaf once you realize that the thinkers from whom the protectionist elements of the Right draw much of their inspiration have historically denounced precisely the sorts of innovators and technological breakthroughs that Palmer implicitly celebrates.

For instance, Russell Kirk refused to use a computer or even drive a car, instead referring to the latter devices by the derisive appellation of “mechanical Jacobins.” Richard Weaver bemoaned the sciences as things in themselves, tracing them to what he saw as the heretical philosophies of William of Occam in the middle ages. The tremendously influential Reconstructionist theologian RJ Rushdoony called modern science “witchcraft,” claiming that its drive to greater technological power had given scientists aspirations towards superseding God.

Even more contemporary inspirations for protectionist conservatives could care less about science – Wendell Berry, for instance, resides on a very old-fashioned farm, refuses to use most modern technology, and all but explicitly yearns for the days when public nuisances like Galileo, Isaac Newton and Adam Smith could be burned at the stake upon the recommendation of the local vicar. What is more, the affections of the protectionists are almost all aesthetic, and premised upon the notion that aesthetics supersedes social science – Pat Buchanan, for instance, opposes free trade based on a romantic notion that manufacturing workers are Burkean little platoons rather than willing pawns of the AFL-CIO – so expecting a video based solely on economic logic to resonate with them, no matter how airtight that economic logic is, is, quite frankly, naive.

Then again, perhaps I’m reading too much into this. It could be that Palmer simply means the video as a general statement for the public. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this purpose – in fact, I think the video’s probably a useful device for getting people to start thinking in ways I generally find agreeable – though I wonder whether free trade is really such a titanic issue for the libertarian movement.

Surely health care, taxes, deficits and all the other Tea Party-related bogeymen are more than enough to be getting on with? Libertarian students and policy wonks will probably enjoy posting this video to their facebook walls, and I certainly don’t discourage them from doing so, but let’s keep our eye on the ball. Libertarians have bigger battles ahead of them – it’d be a shame to get ADD now.

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