Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Little Bit of Blasphemy: A Reply to Onorati

Over at the FreedomWorks blog, my good friend Joseph Onorati wrote a post in condemnation of protectionism and in favor of free trade. As you can guess, I am in general agreement with Joseph on this one. But because I am a wicked troll, I had no choice but to post a scathing counterargument on the blog. I figured it might be of interest to some of you, and I'd love to help draw attention to Joseph's work and the FreedomWorks site. So check it out!

I also wanted to offer a few counterarguments to the counterargument I presented on the FreedomWorks blog in case anyone suddenly feels uncomfortable about free trade in light of something I said there (I wouldn't want to actually make someone advocate protectionism, of course; I was just poking fun at Joseph!). So here are, as I see them, the three points which together make liberalizing trade a coherent position to advocate for in national policy debates:

1) The particular values which we might seek to promote through protectionist policies are not universally shared across the country. In fact, it's not even close. A respectful society would not impose coercive policies which are inescapably designed in a way that impoverishes the general populous in order to promote goals which are not necessarily supported by those who will be affected.

2) As Joe correctly noted, the free market -- with its power to spontaneously coordinate the pursuit of constantly changing and often competing ends without the direction of a conscious designer -- is the most powerful mechanism we know of for creating wealth and prosperity. Nothing else even comes close. So by allowing the market to function, we can be relatively confident that people will be generally better off than they will be under more consciously coordinated regimes which aim to mold society to a particular static vision.

3) Centralized decision-makers are ill-suited to making effective protectionist policies. They are subject to lobbying pressure and a set of incentives which often lead them to make decisions for reasons other than their beliefs about what would be in the best interests of the people, and even when they are acting on good intentions, they often lack the knowledge and understanding that would be necessary to carry out their plans with any degree of precision and effectiveness.

For those three reasons (and not only one of them by itself), I think it's reasonable to support free markets in national-level policy discussions. To be clear, I don't always think that's the right call for more localized and tightly unified policy-making groups. But where policies are going to be imposed in broad strokes on a country of over 300 million people, I can't bring myself to support putting any power of that sort in the hands of any bureaucrat or politician, no matter how much they want the best for the country.

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