Whenever I find the discussion in my business-ethics class veering into matters of economic science, I remind my Booth students that they are as well served having me discourse on Okun’s law as they would be if their finance professors held forth on Kant’s Categorical Imperative. But among the handful of lessons I’ve retained from my undergraduate economics classes is the notion that free trade benefits everyone, and any public policy in its favor is preferable to protectionism.
When I was an undergraduate in the late 1990s, on either side of the political aisle in the United States this view bordered on common sense. Sure, there were hold-outs. But the North American Free Trade Agreement became law with disproportionate support from Congressional Republicans and the imprimatur of a Democratic president—in other words, with some bipartisan agreement. Amidst the polarized context of American politics today, when a bill celebrating grandmothers can barely make it out of committee, such agreement seems nearly unthinkable.
The capacity for cross-party cooperation isn’t the only thing that’s receded. So has support for free trade. On the first night of the Republican National Convention, the most important elected official to speak was Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s biggest booster in Congress. His support may be illumined, in large part, by an attack he made on Hillary Clinton. “She has been a champion of globalist trade agreements,” Sessions declared, adverting to deals like NAFTA. “But the facts are in. They have not worked for our people.”
The sight of a Republican senator thundering against free trade from the convention podium is enough to make most Chamber of Commerce members wonder if they are suffering from heat stroke. And yet, there was Sessions on Monday night, attacking the Democratic nominee as a free-trader while lauding the Republican nominee for his commitment to protectionism.
Not that Donald Trump would embrace that description of his policy proposals. “I’m not an isolationist,” he told Lesley Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview over the weekend. “I’m [for] free trade, but I want to make good deals.”
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is apparently not among them. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country,” Trump said a few weeks earlier, adding for good measure, “That’s what it is, too. It’s a harsh word: It’s a rape of our country.”
Somewhat awkwardly for the GOP nominee, that statement may highlight a contrast between his own views and those of his newly minted vice-presidential pick, Indiana Governor Mike Pence. As Pence tweeted in the fall of 2014,
Trade means jobs, but trade also means security. The time has come for all of us to urge the swift adoption of the Trans Pacific Partnership— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) September 8, 2014
For anyone familiar with Governor Pence’s record, such a sentiment is hardly surprising. As Lesley Stahl noted to Pence, who happened to be sitting next to Trump during the interview, “You have voted for every trade agreement when you were in Congress.” Pence assented. “I support free trade,” he said, “and so does Donald Trump.”
If that statement seems to contradict some of Trump’s specific policy positions, the confusion may be explained by George Orwell. In Politics and the English Language, he memorably said of good writing, “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” His warning was against the tendency to use the totemic significance of certain words toward ends that bear little in common with their traditional meaning.
The notional hold of “free trade” is still quite strong among rank-and-file Republicans, but Trump’s electoral success, in addition to a popular turn toward protectionism, gives an ambitious politician in either party ample reason to revisit how that commitment is actually practiced.
If politicians are adopting an ambiguous posture toward free trade, it may be another indication of the crisis posed by postscarcity politics, a subject on which I have been meditating in this series. Whether we should sacrifice some of the efficiencies of free trade, and how much of them we should choose to give up, are exactly the kind of thorny questions confronting all politicians in this exceptional election cycle.
The Conventional Wisdom series features John Paul Rollert’s dispatches from the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions. You can see more Conventional Wisdom posts here. If you want to engage the discussion, tweet John Paul @jprollert.