Smarter Protectionist Demagogues, Please

by Kevin Carson

For years, I’ve had to listen to bilious rhetoric about “anti-Americanism,” “treason” and the like from the Legion and Dittoheads. Now I get to enjoy the same kind of posturing from “Progressives” — with Keith Olbermann, Lawrence O’Donnell and their ilk sounding like a bunch of know-nothing Republicans.

The latest case in point is Ian Fletcher (“LIbertarianism, the new anti-Americanism,” Huffington Post, Jan. 19), writing in criticism of an article by Don Boudreaux.

Fletcher quotes a very short snippet from Boudreaux to the effect that an increase in the economic well-being of a South Korean is as worthy of celebration as an improvement for a South Carolinian (“Another Open Letter to Ian Fletcher,” Cafe Hayek, Jan. 9).

Of course Fletcher eschews any context, like Boudreaux’s remarks on the long-term benefit to American workers from increased productivity and better and cheaper goods. No, he prefers to keep things simple (even at the cost of folding, spindling and mutilating the truth): libertarians “just don’t care” about Americans.

I would contest a couple of Fletcher’s unstated premises:

First — a premise that requires no small amount of selective quotation to read into Boudreaux’s comments — that globalization does, in fact, benefit foreign workers at the expense of American ones. I hear the same meme a lot from the anti-globalization Right: globalization is some sort of altruistic “socialist” movement to dismantle the American economy for the benefit of the Third World.

But it’s arguable that globalization benefits transnational corporations at the expense of both American and Third World workers. The TNCs are in the position of a toll-keeper on a bridge separating two groups of workers, take a cut every time one worker exchanges her labor for another’s. Both Third World and American workers would be better off, in most cases, with relocalized economies in which the goods they consume are produced by small-scale manufacturers close to where they live.

Which leads to Fletcher’s second false premise — one that he shares with Boudreaux to some extent: That globalization is, in fact, something that results from “free market” or “libertarian” policies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Globalization is not something that results spontaneously from the free market, if states do nothing to prevent it. The corporate global economy is the product of massive collusion between big government and big business.

“Free trade” does not, as Fletcher alleges in an earlier column, promote greater income inequality within countries. Corporate globalization may well do so — but corporate globalization is not free trade.

The centerpiece of the neoliberal fake “free trade” agenda, a central provision in every so-called “Free Trade Agreement,” is what’s euphemistically called “strong intellectual property [sic] protections.” IP law plays the same protectionist role for global corporations that tariffs used to play for the old national industrial corporations. IP law is the central means by which transnational corporate headquarters are able to retain control of outsourced manufacturing in job shops all over the world, and charge a brand-name markup of many hundreds of percent — in effect standing as parasitic toll-keepers between Chinese workers and American consumers. So the neoliberal “free trade” agenda is really as protectionist as Smoot-Hawley.

For decades, American foreign policy has protected Third World landed oligarchies against left-wing land reform movements, in effect enforcing the artificial land titles of haciendados and other feudal ruling classes at the expense of the rightful owners actually working the land. It has empowered such landed oligarchies to reenact the Enclosures of early modern Britain, driving peasants off the land and leaving them no choice but to enter the wage labor market on whatever terms are offered by foreign capital.

The World Bank, in collusion with Third World elites, has mainly undertaken projects to create subsidized road and utility infrastructure without which offshored industry would not be profitable — and then used the resulting debt in much the same manner as a company store, to coerce local governments into “structural adjustment” deals by which state property is “privatized” in collusion with crony capitalists.

So corporate globalization, despite all the rhetorical trappings of “free trade,” is statist to the core.

Considering the uncharitability of the motives Fletcher attributes to libertarians — painting the entire movement with a broad brush as “selfish” shills for big business interests — his own agenda might warrant closer examination. Fletcher is an Adjunct Fellow with a hardcore protectionist outfit called the U.S. Business and Industry Council. Despite all the talk about outsourcing and American jobs, the central function of trade barriers is just this: To protect the large American corporation from competition by compelling the American worker to purchase the corporation’s product on its own terms. The tariff used to be called the “Mother of Cartels” for good reason.

So before Fletcher accuses libertarians of carrying water for big business, maybe he should put down those buckets.

9 responses to “Smarter Protectionist Demagogues, Please

  1. You got to laugh at the inconsistencies of anti-libertarians.
    Though new to the school of thought I have to say that it certainly makes sense, even if you disagree with it, which I don’t :)

  2. Umm, why this obsession with America at all?

    Why would we British care about whether a South Korean or an American is better off in some economic deal?

  3. I guess because the USA always has an impact upon us in the UK. We follow their trends in many respects. Thus…

  4. Even so, the sometimes obsessive interest in the internal minutiae of another country is rather pathetic.

  5. Do bear in mind that Kevin Carson is American.

  6. If i were to write a piece for an American blog i would make a minimal effort to frame my thoughts in ways relevant to the audience.

    I would not demand an answer to whether they should care if an economic deal better benefited British workers or South Korean workers. That is parochial and pretty insulting to the audience.

  7. Ah, but he isn’t to blame for this. I’m the one who posted it. Complain to me, not Kevin Carson.

  8. In that case i apologise to and withdraw my criticism of Kevin Carson.

    I do get rather irritated by the common assumption that American politics is the be all and end all, which is so often indulged to a ridiculous degree by people on all places on the political spectrum, just remember the Guardians risible attempt to influence the US presidential election in 2004. To be so obsessed with another countries politics is a sign of a lack of self confidence and dignity.

  9. I agree. I cringe when I hear Englishmen dribbling on about American politics, as if they had anything worth hearing to say about them – or the right to expect a hearing.

    It also gets on my tits when Americans assume that America is the whole world. America has the advantage of English ways and a large landmass. Apart from these, it is nothing. Compared with England or France or Germany, it has had a ludicrously small number of great men. It has contributed nothing outstanding to the arts – unless you regard what foreign Jews achieved in Hollywood for a few years as American culture. Its most significant contribution to the world has been corporate fascism and political correctness. So far as I watch America, it is to hope that the place will dissolve into inter-ethnic civil war and leave the rest of us alone.

    Where Kevin Carson is concerned, however, I am republishing him, and he cannot be blamed for not writing for an English readership.