The Perils of Protectionism

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Protectionism


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

Bob Kerrey, then Senator from Nebraska, sought the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination by advocating protectionism. In one ad, he stood by a hockey net, a trade goalie vigilant to block sinister imports. Voters were unimpressed because, Kerrey insouciantly says now, "they knew I was lying."

He means he knew better. John Kerry's flirtation within protectionism is even odder. When he is not threatening to unilaterally reopen trade agreements to force weaker nations to adopt labor and environmental laws more to America's liking, he is denouncing President Bush for arrogant unilateralism.

Kerry's encouragement of protectionists who preach "anti-globalization" could be lethal--literally. It threatens international trade, the engine of economic growth, which is the surest means of ameliorating poverty, which is the world's principal cause of preventable death.

Global poverty is often analyzed with more moral indignation than intellectual rigor. From the fallacy that economics is a zero-sum game--that someone's gain must be someone else's commensurate loss--moralists conclude that people are living badly in sub-Saharan Africa because people are living well in North America.

Today America is supposedly a victim of poor countries' progress. Although consumers have benefited, a much smaller number of workers have indeed been injured by the influx of inexpensive goods, many of them produced by the 300 million Chinese who have made the classic trek of modernization from farms to factories in the last 25 years. And 250 million more will make that trek by 2020.

But before blaming job losses on foreign wage scales, note that 40 percent of the total job loss since December 2000 occurred within 90 days after September 11, 2001. And if the Bush administration exaggerates America's power to shape the world, Kerry and other protectionists exaggerate America's vulnerability to low-wage foreign competition--and the ability of U.S. policy to protect U.S. jobs without triggering retaliation that would cost more jobs in export industries than are lost to imports.

Kerry should consult the new book "In Defense of Globalization" by Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University. Globalization is the integration of national economies into a world system of freely flowing goods, services, investments and even people. Dissecting "fears masquerading as evidence," Bhagwati argues that anti-globalization involves an anticapitalist and anticorporation "ethos"--and residues of Marx's prophecy that capitalism must produce the immiseration of the masses.

At the end of the 19th century, Bhagwati says, flows of trade, capital and people were, relative to the size of the world economy, "no less than they are today. …

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