Are Protectionism and Patriotism Incompatible Principles?
Religion & Liberty Online

Are Protectionism and Patriotism Incompatible Principles?

This morning at Ethika Politika, I argue that “acting primarily for the sake of national interest in international affairs runs contrary to a nation’s highest ideals.” In particular, I draw on the thought of Vladimir Solovyov, who argued that, morally speaking, national interest alone cannot be the supreme standard of international action since the highest aspirations of each nation (e.g. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) are claimed to be universal goods. I would here like to explore his critique with reference to the subject of international trade.

Solovyov writes,

[H]ow then can a patriot take the good of his nation to be something distinct from and opposed to everything else? It will clearly not be the ideal moral good which the nation itself desires, and the supposed patriot will prove to be opposed not to other nations but to his own in its best aspirations.

Such a nationalism ultimately runs counter to the “best aspirations” of a nation, the principles that each believes are the right of all people everywhere.

At the same time, however, he warns against the opposite extreme, cosmopolitanism, in which nationality is ignored for the sake of regarding only individual persons as the center of moral activity. This, he argues, fails to account for human dignity inasmuch as each person has a nationality that they often hold dear as an inseparable part of who they are. How can we claim to uphold the person while disregarding an integral part of who they are?

Instead, he ultimately concludes that “we must love all nations as we love our own.” Such a standard avoids the extremes of nationalism and cosmopolitanism while at the same time embracing what is best in both positions: patriotism and altruism, all the while being grounded upon the biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:19).

In my article, I consider this question in the context of international military intervention in the light of certain comments made by Vice President Joseph Biden and Representative Paul Ryan in last Thursday’s debate, but Solovyov certainly believes that the principle to “love all nations as we love our own” ought to apply to all international affairs. How, then, would such a standard apply in the sphere of international trade? Does patriotism require protectionism? If Solovyov is right, the answer is no. In fact, protectionism ultimately runs counter to the principles most deserving of true patriotic love.

Last February, Anthony Bradley considered the difficult subject of immigration in his Acton Commentary article from a perspective that, I believe, reflects this principle. He writes,

America’s immigration debate will never be adequately addressed until we think clearly about the economic incentives that encourage Mexican citizens to risk their lives to cross the border. In fact, if we care about human dignity we must think comprehensively about the conditions for human flourishing so that the effective policies promote the common good. Sadly, U.S. government farm subsidies create the conditions for the oppression and poor health care of Mexican migrant workers in ways that make those subsidies nothing less than immoral.

It is clear that “the common good” for Bradley, like Solovyov, does not mean only “the common good of my nation.” And, indeed, he notes,

The 2003 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) deregulated all agricultural trade, except for corn and dairy products. The Mexican government complains that since NAFTA’s initial implementation in 1994, the United States has raised farm subsidies by 300 percent. As a result, Mexican corn farmers, who comprise the majority of the country’s agricultural sector, experienced drastic declines in the domestic price of their product. It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States began to experience an influx of Mexicans looking for employment in the latter half of the 1990s. Mexican farmers are now rightly protesting because they cannot compete against prices that are artificially deflated for the sake of protecting Americans from necessary market corrections.

The result is that, through our current protectionist policies, we have elevated our interests to the point of contributing to the extreme poverty that motivates immigration in the first place. Furthermore, Bradley notes that “migrant and seasonal farm workers [in the United States] suffer the poorest health status within the agriculture industry.” Thus, we incentivize people to come here, only to encounter a harsh work environment with serious health concerns. Through seeking to protect our own interests above the common good of all, we perpetuate the problem.

He concludes,

Mexican migrant workers are sick and dying because politicians create perverse and immoral incentives by interfering with the market. Ignoring the dignity of Mexican workers and the common good, they instead pander to a powerful special interest group, the corn lobby. What Mexico needs from U.S. political leaders is the fortitude to let market mechanisms foster human flourishing in Mexico so that families do not have to the suffer the hazards of migrancy. In sum, it would be better for both countries if the Mexican economy were not sabotaged by the politics of protectionism.

Notice, when we “love all nations as we love our own,” it is often, as in this case, “better for both countries.” But will such a standard be embraced by either President Obama or Governor Mitt Romney in the second presidential debate tonight, which centers on foreign policy? We’ll see. For my part I certainly hope so, but I expect otherwise.

Read my full article at Ethika Politika here.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.