Is free trade an expediency?

Jacques Delacroix makes an odd argument over at his blog Facts Matter:

Free trade is not a moral principle, it’s an expediency; violating the principle just costs money.

This argument comes after he admits that he would be very, very open to protectionism because of Mexico’s recent decision to denationalize its oil and natural gas industries.

Before I continue, who does Dr Delacroix think would benefit from a protectionist union with the United States?

Would he really advocate denationalizing the Mexican energy sector simply to force resources north of the border through a protectionist union? This seems to be the implication of his argument. If expediency is indeed Dr Delacroix’s excuse for free trade, then he automatically loses the argument to mercantilists (what, for example, sounds more expedient to you: A nationalized energy sector or free trade?).

It is precisely because of this automatic defeat that an 18th century moral philosopher (Adam Smith) decided to write a book on the moral superiority of free trade over protectionism (The Wealth of Nations). At its core, free trade is about the freedom of the individual to do what she pleases so long as no force nor fraud is involved. Once this underlying moral argument is understood, free trade can easily be seen as the natural outgrowth of such a philosophy.

Here is something to look out for as you read arguments put forth in the press: The moral argument. If an argument claims to have no moral underpinning it doesn’t mean there is no moral underpinning. It just means that the proponent of a said argument does not care for opposing or alternative arguments.

Ugh, this is getting convoluted so let me see if I can use an example. Suppose a politician or an academic is making an argument in favor of a policy (the policy itself is irrelevant). Suppose the proponent of this policy argues that the best reason to show support for his policy is because it will make everybody better off (it doesn’t matter how). Suppose further that this politician or academic claims that his policy is expedient rather moral, and that this in and of itself is one of the policy’s main features.

Would you support it?

Because throughout history most people have. This support is why we see a stagnation – of incomes, of years lived, and of innovation – for thousands of years in human history. The impact on mores that the expediency-over-morality outlook had on humanity can also be reflected in our utterly violent past.

I point out the difference between arguing from a moral standpoint and arguing from an expedient one because of the consequences that each of these approaches tend to produce. For example, Dr Delacroix also advocates military adventurism abroad in the name of expediency rather than morality. Can you guess why he still defends the actions of the Bush administration? But the Iraqis held elections, right guys? Right?

The moral thing to do – secure the lives and liberties of individuals first and foremost – is usually also the hardest thing to do, especially when people continually wave expedient choices in the faces of those who must choose. Yet I think that when and where this simple moral principle is able to gain a foothold in the minds of enough people, the rewards are ample.

Speaking of rewards, the ‘comments’ section at Dr Delacroix’s blog is currently inundated with speculation about whether or not Santa Claus was (was) really white-skinned. One reaps what one sows, after all!

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6 thoughts on “Is free trade an expediency?

  1. In my opinion utilitarianism is one of the greatest threats to individual liberty. You can, in effect, justify any vile act based on benefits only realized after the fact. Who hasn’t heard arguments such as “Without world war two we wouldn’t have microwaves or commercial airliners” or ” “Without the cold war we wouldn’t have a space program”. While these assertions may or may not be factually true any attempt to justify an immoral act based on positive consequences of said act is in itself an immoral act.

  2. I’m not comfortable with moral arguments. Whose mores do we use? I don’t mind yours “The moral thing to do – secure the lives and liberties of individuals first and foremost – ” because I happen to agree. However recent comments by the Pope seem to have roused at least some libertarians and conservatives. I think the Pope was making moral arguments but his mores don’t mesh particularly well with yours. There’s no particular reason to prefer your mores to those of the Pope other than my sharing your mores [well at least one].

    I’m not comfortable with moral arguments.

  3. @Terry

    The Pope may make an argument I disagree with, but at least he’s honest and open about it. Once this honesty is out in the open, arguments can proceed in a fashion that is beneficial for everybody. Imagine if all debates had to begin with a moral premise!

    What’s best for everyone, or almost everyone, is a rare phenomenon.

    There is also the issue of subjectivity. Many people believe (erroneously) that everyone should have “an education,” but few can define what education means. Is it simply a certification for jumping through hoops? If so, then wouldn’t the fact that everybody has “an education” be redundant? Does education mean a certain understanding of the world? Does it represent a certain grasp of reality? If this is the case then I would think “an education” is, again, something that not everyone can (or should) possess at the same time.

    That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that liberalization is good for everyone due to the significant rise in standards of living and tolerance that it produces. However, I don’t see how it can follow that liberalization should be adopted simply because it makes everybody better off. The fact that it does make everybody better off is a good point to have on your side, of course, but I don’t think it follows that liberalization in and of itself should be adopted simply because everybody becomes better off.

    As an example of what I mean, let’s take a look at former Soviet Union. Once The Wall collapsed and it became apparent to the world just how heinous socialism actually was, efforts at liberalization in Russia began almost immediately.

    Capitalism is better than communism, so why did Russia fall apart? There was no moral argument being put forth. The prevailing opinion (“The Washington Consensus”) was that all a country needed to do to grow prosperous and free (thereby making everybody better off) was adopt a certain set of policies.

    Yet individual rights, especially strong property rights, are the basis of capitalism, and individualism is a deeply moral argument. The moral argument about the freedom of the individual was discarded in Russia, and as a result the policies that were undertaken to make everybody better off failed miserably.

    I can see how moral arguments trouble some, but it seems to me that without such an argument one is simply plugging leaks in a boat with his fingers.

  4. “The Pope may make an argument I disagree with, but at least he’s honest and open about it. Once this honesty is out in the open, arguments can proceed in a fashion that is beneficial for everybody. Imagine if all debates had to begin with a moral premise!”

    I believe that intellectual honesty and clarity are good things. No argument there. However (there always seems to be a ‘however’ :) ) I don’t see how moral arguments can proceed at all let alone in a fashion that is beneficial to everyone. Discourse between the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis could be interesting but I suspect that it won’t end with Francis throwing his hands in the air and proceeding to accept his Buddha nature.

    “What’s best for everyone, or almost everyone, is a rare phenomenon.”

    Yes. In large part because there’s so little agreement about what’s best for everyone. Except in Kentucky where most everyone agreed that accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior was what’s best for everyone.

    Lest you object to me conflating religion and morality consider the number of people who base morality on religion.

    • All good points. You write:

      I don’t see how moral arguments can proceed at all let alone in a fashion that is beneficial to everyone.

      Very true, but what about the people who are watching or reading such an exchange? If the debate is never allowed to happen, simply because the two of them know they’ll never agree, then how would the two of these guys ever influence anybody? How would they ever come to at least understand each other?

      Except in Kentucky where most everyone agreed that accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior was what’s best for everyone.

      Doesn’t this help strengthen my point, though? If morality is ignored in the context of a Kentucky then Jesus Christ becomes what is best for everybody whether they like it or not. The moral argument isn’t the popularity of JC (popularity would be the expedient argument), it’s whether or not to accept JC as your personal savior. If one isn’t convinced to do this, then no amount of coercion will change somebody’s mind. That is to say, there is no moral justification for undertaking the expedient actions that some Kentucky Christians seek to take.

      Am I making sense?

  5. “Am I making sense?”

    Yes. I have to admit, your first point never occurred to me. I hadn’t thought about an audience to discourse rather than just the parties involved. Duh.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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