Smarter Protectionist Demagogues, Please

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.

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