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The Arrogance of Protectionism

1991 promises to bring us an explosion of anti-free trade actions. Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan has already acquiesced to the growing protectionist sentiment: "Worldwide, from Canada to Soweto nationalism is ascendant; men are putting tribe, culture, country, first."

Buchanan argues that "if recession hits hard, amid a perception that Uncle Sam has thrown open markets to foreigners who are closing theirs, the argument for efficiency will not carry the house. The arguments of the head will lose to the arguments of the heart: Let's take care of our own."

The mistaken assumption in Buchanan's scenario is that there is no moral case for free trade; apparently, the only justification for free trade is that it is more efficient than protectionism.

But advocates of free trade have always been quick with general moral arguments for free trade -- all parties in the transaction benefit, jobs are created not lost, consumers benefit, trade cartels cannot last, and the historical motivations for war are removed. These sorts of arguments do well for the already converted, but none of them effectively takes the legitimate moral high ground. These arguments are all relatively defensive in nature.

Advocates of free trade need to make the moral case for free trade by seizing the legitimate moral high ground and offensively dismantling protectionist sentiment. We can accomplish this by focusing on the genuine and utter arrogance of protectionism.

Protectionist arrogance resides in the fact that trade barriers always involve prohibiting someone from doing what they want with their own property -- or as Christ rhetorically asks: "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?" (Matt. 20:15 -- an application of the prohibition of stealing -- Ex. 20: 15).

Instead of defensively hoping for free trade to be accepted, we should point out protectionism's gross immorality -- it violates the most commonly accepted notions of property rights, those kind of simple notions regularly paraded through cartoons and adventure films.

We should challenge protectionists to justify their unearned claim to control another person's property without that person's consent. Why do we allow the state to control that for which it doesn't compensate? Why do we approve of lobbyists encouraging the leaders to sin in this way?

A clear understanding of the right to "do what you want with you own" will cut through the typical nationalistic fallacies of protectionism. Of course, in our day, neither Republicans nor Democrats can risk invoking such a principle since its implications reach most of their cherished pork-barrels. We may not see serious free trade in our lifetime, but the the right to control one's own property is built into the prohibition of stealing, and the prohibition of stealing is inherent in proclaiming the whole counsel of God. So, while we keep up the short term battle for free trade, long term success rests in discipling the nations.


Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991

1-17-96 tew
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