More Longform essays

Barry’s essays on republican libertarianism (not what you think, American readers!) and British sovereignty and isolationism are up in the new ‘Longform Essays‘ section of the blog. You’ll see that there are more in the works, too, including essays by Zak, Rick, and at least one more from Barry.

These essays join Jacques’ work on legal immigration into the United States and protectionism/free trade, as well as Mary’s essay on education and its relationship with The State.

Editing these essays makes me the luckiest dude in all of libertarian-dom! I hope there are many more in the years to come.

I still pay attention to the news cycle, but it’s so outrageous these days that it’s hard to write about, let alone analyse or interpret. What a mess. I will say that corporate media is definitely skewed to the left.

Libertarians – and economists – haven’t done a good job of explaining the benefits of free trade. Telling the man on the street that free trade is a fundamental truth has not worked. “Democracy” is another major issue; people throw the word around like a baseball, but its fundamentals are rarely discussed. Given that we’ve gone to war over democracy, on numerous occasions, I think it needs to be discussed far more often.

At any rate, enjoy the essays!

Nightcap

  1. When houses of prayer become places of shelter Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  2. Race, or the last colonial struggle in Latin America Jason McGraw, Age of Revolutions
  3. Free Trade, Unconditional and Unilateral Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek
  4. Remembering Peter Schramm Ken Masugi, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. The politics of “now” and the fall of the world’s governing soccer body David Runciman, London Review of Books
  2. Nineteenth-century rappers, Corn Laws, and the rise of free trade Greg Rosalsky, JSTOR Daily
  3. Avocados and tamales: language lessons Joyce Bartholomae, Coldnoon
  4. North Korea’s ice-cream-colored totalitarianism Lena Schipper, 1843

Midweek Reader: The Folly of Trump’s Tariffs

With stocks plummeting this week upon an announcement of retaliatory tariffs by China in response to a recent spate of steel and aluminum tariffs from the Trump administration, it seems a midweek reader on the situation is appropriate.

  • At the Washington Post, Rick Noack explains how Trump is going into unprecedented territory since the WTO was founded, and why existing trade norms probably can’t stem a trade war. A slice:

    But while China has used the WTO to accuse the United States of unfairly imposing trade restrictions over the last months, Trump does not appear interested in being dragged into the dispute settlement process. In fact, Trump appears to be deliberately undermining the legitimacy of that process by saying that his tariffs plan was based on “national security” concerns. WTO rules mandate that a member state can claim exceptions from its trade obligations if the member’s national security is at stake.

    That reasoning has long been a no-go among WTO member states, because they understand  that triggering trade disputes under a “national security” framework could eventually render the WTO meaningless.

  • Last month at the Chicago TribuneSteve Chapman had a good op-ed showing why Trump’s justification of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds is bogus:

    But putting tariffs on all imports to prevent dependence on China or Russia is like throwing away your library card to avoid bad books. It would make more sense to focus on the guilty countries rather than deploy a sprayer that also soaks the innocent.

    The national security risk is minuscule, though. Imports make up only one-third of the steel we use, and the Pentagon requires less than 3 percent of our domestic output. No enemy has us over a barrel, because we buy steel from 110 different countries.

    Most of what we import comes from allies and friends, including Canada, South Korea and Mexico, which would have no reason to cut us off in a crisis. If China stopped shipping to us, friendlier countries would leap to grab the business.

  • Also at the Washington Post last month, historian Marc-William Palen gives numerous historical examples of how nobody wins in trade wars and how they can threaten our national security by arousing populist resentment of the US abroad. A slice:

    The trade wars that followed the Republican passage of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised duties on hundreds of imports, similarly contain illustrative lessons for today. Canada responded with tariff increases of its own, for example, as did Europe.

    In a widely cited study from 1934, political economist Joseph M. Jones Jr. explored Europe’s retaliation. His study provided a warning about the trade wars that can arise when a single nation’s tariff policy “threatens with ruin” specialized industries in other countries, arousing “bitterness” throughout their populations.

  • At Cato’s At LibertyDaniel Ikeson explains how Trump’s tariffs establish a dangerous international precedent that will threaten US interests elsewhere:

    By signing these tariffs into law, President Trump has substantially lowered the bar for discretionary protectionism, inviting governments around the world to erect trade barriers on behalf of favored industries.  Ongoing efforts to dissuade China from continuing to force U.S. technology companies to share source code and trade secrets as the cost of entering the Chinese market will likely end in failure, as Beijing will be unabashed about defending its Cybersecurity Law and National Security Law as measures necessary to protect national security.  That would be especially incendiary, given that the Trump administration is pursuing resolution of these issues through another statute—Section 301 of the Trade act of 1974—which could also lead the president to impose tariffs on China unilaterally.

  • The Independent Institute’s Robert Higgs reminds us that citing trade deficits is misleading:

    In reality, individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments trade with other such entities, some of which are located in the same country and others of which are located in other countries. The location of the trading partners has no economic significance whatsoever. Trading entities enter into exchanges voluntarily, each one in each transaction anticipating a gain from the trade. Hence, in expectational terms, every such trade entails a gain from trade, or in other words an addition to the trader’s wealth.

  • At American Greatness, Henry Olsen tries to give a communitarian justification of protectionism:

    So-called populist movements around the world are gaining strength because their voters no longer feel like valued members of their nations. They do not believe their worth should decline because the owners of capital say so, nor do they think their life dreams or values should be denigrated simply because the most educated have different visions.

    Populists like Trump address this spiritual yearning and fulfill the deepest need every human has, to be valued and to belong to a group that values you. In this, and perhaps in this need alone, all men are truly created equal. Tariffs are simply an economic means to fulfill this spiritual need. Tariff opponents can only win if they first recognize this need and promise a more effective way to fulfill it.

  • At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan explains why communitarianism cannot justify protectionist policies:

    Second, if tariffs don’t actually succeed in helping these workers, then the symbolic argument falls flat. Imagine an artist said, “I’m so concerned about the plight of people living in tenements, I’m going to do a performance art project where I burn down all their homes and leave them on the street. Sure, that will make them even worse off, but my heart is in the right place, and I thereby express my concern for them.” This artist would be…a contemptible asshole.

  • Finally, given its relevance at the moment, it’s worth revisiting Paul Krugman’s classic essay “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” which remains the best account of why non-economist intellectuals have a hard understanding free trade:

    (i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

    (ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

From the Comments: More trade, more states?

Nguyen Ha left this thoughtful comment about my post on protectionism in Africa that I am embarrassed I missed:

Would you care to explain how “stronger economic ties will hasten the demise of current African states’ superficial institutions”?

What a tough question! First, though, I stated that it was my hope that deeper trading ties would lead to more states, not my prediction. My hope is based on current trends around the world: stronger economic ties have led to more states (and more aspirations for statehood within existing states).

The best academic treatment on this topic comes from Giacomo Ponzetto, an economist currently at CREI in Barcelona (he’s been mentioned at NOL on more than one occasion, too), and especially the Introduction and Section 5 of his working paper titled “Globalization and Political Structure.” Here:

As globalization proceeds, localities remove borders by increasing the size of countries. The number of countries declines and the mismatch between each locality is ideal and actual provision of public services grows. Eventually, this mismatch is large enough to justify a move to a two-level governance structure. The world political structure shifts from a few large countries to many small countries within a world economic union. The two-level structure is more expensive, but it is nonetheless desirable because it facilitates trade and improves preference-matching in the provision of public services.

By “two-level governance structure” Ponzetto means one level, a locality, that’s focused on delivering public goods to that specific locality, and another level, a world economic union, that’s focused on protecting property rights and eliminating border costs.

You can see this concept play out in a few different federative structures, especially the EU, the US, India, and China. In the European Union, multiple localities have tried to separate from countries (Catalonia from Spain, Scotland from UK) while still remaining part of the international economic union in place. Deeper trade ties, more states.

Three new states were created in India in 2000, and China is currently grappling with federalism as a way to keep up with its predictable economic success. The US hasn’t seen any new states added since 1959, but that’s because its system does a good enough job overall to keep all its member states content (happy, even).

The free trade zone in Africa will be interesting to watch because there are so many different variables at play than in China, the EU, India, or the US. India was governed by one overseas empire; the EU has been able to maintain stability because of American military power and the security umbrella it provides; China has been unified on and off again for centuries; and the US is, for all intents and purposes, a polity underscored by British cultural, economic, and political mores. Africa has none of these traits, yet its various leaders recognize that free trade leads to prosperity and often (not always) to better diplomatic ties.

If all goes well, and current trends elsewhere are any indication, Africa would see more states come into being to go along with its deeper economic ties. (This might be a major factor why Nigeria refused to join; Abuja fought a vicious civil war in the 1970s against separatists in Biafra and its leaders are probably tacitly aware of current global trends.) If all doesn’t go well, then violence and poverty will be just around the corner.

Who are the protectionists in Africa?

Rwanda, a country that thankfully avoided “humanitarian” military intervention by Western powers during a nasty killing spree in the 90s, is leading the charge on free trade in Africa. Of the 54 countries on the African continent, 44 have signed the agreement, but the traditional economic giants of the continent – Nigeria and South Africa – have not. Surprisingly, Botswana, an example often cited by economists as an African success story, has not signed it either.

CNBC reports on why Nigeria has so far refused to join the agreement, citing a consultant who specializes in global trade:

There is a general sentiment among (labor unions and industry bodies) that Nigeria’s export capacity in non-oil sectors isn’t sufficiently robust yet to expose itself to external competition.

Unions and “buy local” capitalists: The scourge of prosperity and progress worldwide, but also not much of a surprise.

What will be interesting to see is where this bold experiment leads. How can 44 countries with poor institutions come together to form a free trade pact? I am hoping this will lead to more states in Africa. My logic goes something like this: stronger economic ties will hasten the demise of current African states’ superficial institutions, while allowing informal institutions to flourish. Because these informal institutions are better at solving coordination problems, they’ll eventually be recognized as states. Here’s how I put it back in 2012:

A better way of looking at it, and one that I have pointed out before, is to look at Europe realize that it shares roughly the same amount  of polities as does Africa (50-ish) despite being four times smaller. I bring up the comparison with Europe because in the Old World things like ethnicity still have a strong hold on how individuals identify themselves with their various social spheres. Rather than the 50-ish number of  polities in Africa that we have today, a better way of solving Africa’s problems would be to let the polities currently in place dissolve into 400 polities. Or 500. Then, I think, Africans would know peace and prosperity.

I’d add, today, that this would only be possible if the links built by this free trade pact endure. Economic integration is vital to the dissolution of Africa’s despotic states. (h/t Barry)

Nightcap

  1. Enlightenment and the Capitalist Crisis Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. The Wall is the Wall: Why Fortresses Fail Jack Anderson, War on the Rocks
  3. Topiary in the land of al-Qaeda Nicolas Pelham, 1843
  4. Why Ketchup in Mexico Tastes So Good Jeffrey Tucker, Daily Economy