Donald Trump’s Zero Sum Trade Policy Affronts Classical Liberalism

If judicial nominations are the best reasons to support Donald Trump, one of the best reasons to oppose him is his trade policy. In a speech this week he made clear that he will block the Transpacific Partnership, unravel NAFTA, and try to raise tariffs generally, which he implied were a good substitute for other kinds of taxes. He would be the President most opposed to foreign trade at least since President Hoover signed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

There is a reason that freer trade has always been at the heart of the classical liberal vision—from the Manchester School in the nineteenth century to Reagan’s America.  It is not only that trade creates wealth through exchange. It is that trade is part of the engine that sustains civilization through human cooperation when we get rid of mind forged manacles, like mercantilism and distaste for foreigners. It is the enlargement of the sphere of cooperation domestically and globally that offers a long-run boost to security as well as prosperity.

Beyond the details of his policies, Trump’s position on trade shows him the opposite of a classical liberal—someone who thinks that political and economic life is zero-sum where the point of  a nation is win over other nations and the point of an individual is to win over others.  That is the recipe for endless political conflict and division—a medieval Game of Thrones played out in the twenty-first century.

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Symphony of Creative Destruction

Deserted sugar mill near Koloa, Kauai in Hawaii

You wouldn’t think a Hawaiian vacation would offer a Texan lessons about economic change, comparative advantage, and creative destruction—but my trip to Maui did.

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