Monday, February 18, 2013

Labor Protectionism, the New Greed

(What follows below will make much more sense if you read this first: I know I’m a little late in responding, but I only just found the article recently and it’s equally relevant today as it was when it was written).

Sometimes the bad guys do us all a big favor, by openly stating what they stand for after years of denying it. Last year I received this sort of favor from a liberal editorialist, one Ian Fletcher, at the Huffington Post, a hotbed of liberal thinking. He wrote:

The idea of caring equally about the well-being of people all over the world sounds, of course, like a very sweet and humanitarian philosophy...but there are…realities that get in the way.”

That's it. So finally we have it: after years of telling us that extensive economic regulation -- prohibit this, subsidize that, believe that wealth disparity is always the product of injustice -- is the only compassionate way to improve the lot of the poor, they admit that, in the end, they just don't care about poor people.

Mr. Fletcher has admitted that liberal labor protectionists like him don’t really care about the well-being of the most desperate among us. They don’t care about alleviating wealth disparities, and don’t feel that vast wealth inequalities are an intolerable injustice. Nor does inequality of opportunity have any meaning or importance to them in the real world. They don’t care about the manual laborer working for below minimum wage, nor whether he has a job nor what his salary is. Even in the face of avoidable poverty so rampant that it leads to starvation, disease or death, they remain thoroughly unperturbed.

This is of course a parody of Mr. Fletchers laughable excuse for an argument in his recent post titled “Libertarianism, the new Anti-Americanism.” But despite being in jest, it carries far more rational truth than his original version, because my version actually depicts a man with a moral contradiction between his purported and admitted motives. The crux of the labor protectionist argument is that it is immoral and unwise to allow American jobs to go overseas – where they can be done more efficiently – because of the adverse impact it has on the wages and employment of low-income laborers here in the US. This argument relies almost entirely on one’s compassion for the hard-scrabble, blue collar, lower class American worker who loses his jobs to outsourcing and foreign competition. Sympathy for unemployed poor people is the only reason this argument gains any public traction whatsoever. But to have sympathy for American poor without equal sympathy for foreign poor is either a contradiction or an admission of racism – to call such an opinion hypocritical is to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The vast majority of economists believe the economic benefit of lower prices for all Americans exceeds the economic harm of decreased employment in terms of aggregate wealth creation and the maximization of living standards (in this country and in others). Nevertheless, Mr. Fletcher is a serious, educated and scholarly economist with well-developed arguments for economic nationalism (aka state capitalism). He essentially believes the government should take whatever steps necessary to manipulate international trade in pursuit of its own relative power advantage over other nations. He believes this because he feels international free trade can only carry mutual benefits if it is embraced by all participants. Since many competitive rivals will not abandon their protectionist policies, he argues that America must not either, or it risks being abused. This argument is reasonable and academic – the subject for another blog entry, perhaps.

But outside of a brief three-lines, the post in question does not focus on such an argument. Instead, the majority of the article (including the title) purports an admission of disingenuous intentions on the part of libertarians, without a shred of evidence that this is the case. The quote from Cato economist Don Bordeaux which he claims confesses this “anti-Americanism” reads as follows:

“Why should you or I celebrate less an improvement in the welfare of a South Korean than we celebrate a comparable improvement in the welfare of a South Carolinian?”

How Mr. Fletcher can draw from this quote the assertion (much less the admission) that Libertarians “don’t care what’s good for Americans” is, to put it kindly, a mystery. To put it unkindly, it is a bald-faced sensationalist lie designed to increase the number of online viewers who would click that hyperlinked title and read his bullshit article. Mr. Beaudreaux did not say that libertarians “don’t care about what’s good for Americans” – he said libertarians don’t care about what’s good for Americans more than they care about what’s good for any other human being. He said libertarians believe in the same equality of human rights liberals are supposed to pride themselves on, that we care equally about the well-being of all groups of people. That is not anti-American; it’s egalitarian. Inversely, Fletcher’s position is not patriotic; it’s ethnocentric.

That distinction doesn’t stop Fletcher from accusing the entire libertarian ideology and all of its followers of holding a secret contempt for American citizens. His proof?  Libertarianism “is in fact a notoriously selfish ideology.” Well, I guess that just settles it then. It is a fact that libertarians are selfish, heartless, greedy anti-American nutjobs. And why is it a fact? Because Ian Fletcher says so.

It would be beneath me to return Fletcher’s remarks with equally broad accusations in return. That would be unfair, because most detractors of free trade are nowhere near so condescending, pathetic or reliant on ad-hominem as he is. But it is fair to hold him as an individual to the same standards by which he evaluates others, and that means taking a closer look at what it really means to be selfish.

The process of economic globalization that so displeases Mr. Fletcher has lifted a billion people out of poverty in the past 40 years. The outsourcing of labor to Asia from the West has transformed the world’s two most populated nations – China and India – from desolate wastelands of intense hardship to vibrant, thriving players in the world economy. In turn, the wealth created has lowered the prices of goods across the world, improving living standards for millions of western consumers as well. Technologies that would have seemed unthinkable merely a decade ago have been made easily affordable to the average citizen thanks to this process. Over the coming years, dozens more impoverished countries housing billions more poor people stand to benefit in the same way, as the West finally lets Southeast Asia, South America and Africa in on the lucrative and mutually beneficial trade partnerships it had formerly reserved for white nations. By no coincidence, the reasons these regions are poor in the first place stem largely from the genocidal colonialism and brutal slavery imposed by those same white nations little more than a century ago.

Mr. Fletcher’s position is that the United States should stop this process by imposing tariffs or regulations that shield American companies from all foreign competition. He feels we should tax desperate manual laborers out of the market. He feels that we should prevent impoverished farmers in third world countries from selling their produce by handing American farmers billions of dollars in subsidies and special advantages. He feels we should use a portion of our accrued wealth to erect artificial impediments on the ability of foreign citizens to accrue their own. And the reason he feels this way is not out of some feigned sympathy for the plight of the poor, but rather because he believes it to be in the “economic interests of Americans” to prevent non-Americans from becoming wealthy as well. He is so fixated on the relative wealth between nations, and so indifferent to the absolute wealth among them, that he wants Americans to hoard what they have with the express purpose of keeping poor nations poor. And then he has the gall to call the opposite opinion “notoriously selfish.”

So the next time a labor protectionist cites the plight of a unionized American worker, “just remember where their hearts are.”