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Protectionism for Liberals

The ability of companies to allocate jobs globally changes the nature of the discussion about the “gains from trade.” In fact, there are no longer guaranteed “gains,” even in the long run, to those countries that export technology and jobs.

LONDON – Liberal revulsion at US President Donald Trump’s mendacious and uncouth politics has spilled over into a rigid defense of market-led globalization. To the liberal, free trade in goods and services and free movement of capital and labor are integrally linked to liberal politics. Trump’s “America First” protectionism is inseparable from his diseased politics.

But this is a dangerous misconception. In fact, nothing is more likely to destroy liberal politics than inflexible hostility to trade protection. The upsurge of “illiberal democracy” in the West is, after all, the direct result of the losses suffered by Western workers (absolutely and relatively) as a result of the relentless pursuit of globalization.

Liberal opinion on these matters is based on two widespread beliefs: that free trade is good for all partners (so that countries that embrace it outperform those that restrict imports and limit contact with the rest of the world), and that freedom to trade goods and export capital is part of the constitution of liberty. Liberals typically ignore the shaky intellectual and historical evidence for the first belief and the damage to governments’ political legitimacy wrought by their commitment to the second.

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