Growing up in the 1950s, I learned a lot about scare tactics. In those days, some people imagined a Commie under every bed, as the phrase went. Only in retrospect did I learn
of the many careers derailed and lives ruined from Hollywood to Foggy Bottom by such irresponsible hysteria. These days, it’s not Commies but protectionists – aka fair traders, trade skeptics, populists, nationalists, etc. – who are thought to be crowded into America’s sleeping quarters.
Almost daily, we get new warnings about the dangers of “protectionism.” The WTO, the World Bank, The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, a host of ivory tower academics, and other apologists for the globalization model that helped bring us to the current ruinous conditions, all denounce protectionism wherever they see it – and they seem to see it everywhere.
The common, usually unstated, assumption in this hysteria is that anything that reduces import levels constitutes protectionism and therefore, especially in these troubled times, is to be shunned. In these tirades, illegal actions are indiscriminately lumped together with legal challenges to illegal measures. But, dumping is a beggar-thy-neighbor action; antidumping is by agreement the corrective measure. Subsidies can be trade distorting and injurious; when they are, countervailing duties are by agreement the corrective measure. Violation of any WTO rules surely is protectionist; seeking a remedy under established dispute settlement procedures just as surely is not. But the press and the experts they choose to cite, including the very guardians of the institutions charged with making the trading system work, use such a broad brush that it takes all of them to lift it.
Let’s slow down and think about this for a moment. Any thing that reduces imports is a danger to the trading system? A recession? A new and better product? Investment in expanded production capacity? Increased domestic savings? Obviously not.
Everyone knows that in the 1930s, when the law of the jungle prevailed in international trade, competitive protectionism deepened the depression. The system of trade laws and contractual obligations established since 1933 have reduced the scope for such ruinous behavior. Some, but only some, recognize that competitive currency devaluations were at least as significant an element in the beggar-thy-neighbor race among nations in the ‘30s. If you are opposed to trade-distorting practices – and I am -- you would work to end mercantilist currency policies, a particularly malicious form of protectionism. Persistently undervalued currencies not only create an artificial two-way trade advantage but leave the protectionist governments with a stash of hard currencies – free money, in effect – to use however they see fit. I don’t hear much talk from the average “free trader” about this practice. Yet, unlike trade protectionism, currency protectionism is beyond the reach of current rules and institutions.
So, as we head into the G-20 summit in London this week, let’s be impeccable with our word, clear in our reasoning, and discerning in our diagnoses. Let’s stop sowing distrust, killing dialog with name-calling, and diverting attention from real issues. This international economic system no longer works very well. It can only be remade by a concerted effort of statesmen of high intellect, uncommon inventiveness and profound good will. The constant drumbeat of fear based on false assumptions and hysterical misreading of events hinders, not enhances, their work.