A new consensus has emerged in American politics: that the United States has recklessly pursued international economic openness at the expense of workers and the result has been economic inequality, social pain, and political strife. Both Democrats and Republicans are now advocating “a trade policy for the middle class.” In practice, this seems to mean tariffs and “Buy American” programs aimed at saving jobs from unfair foreign competition.
Any presidency that cares about the survival of American democracy, let alone social justice, must assess its economic policies in terms of overcoming populism. The protectionist instinct rests on a syllogism: the populist anger that elected President Donald Trump was largely the product of economic displacement, economic displacement is largely the product of a laissez-faire approach to global competition, and therefore the best way to capture the support of populist voters is to firmly stand up against unfettered global competition. This syllogism is embraced by many Democrats, who are determined to recapture an industrial working-class base, and many Republicans, who use it as evidence that the government has sold out American workers in the heartland. For politicians of any stripe, playing to districts where deindustrialization has taken place seems to offer a sure path to election.
Every step of this syllogism, however, is wrong. Populist anger is the result not of economic anxiety but of perceived declines in relative status. The U.S. government has not been pursuing openness and integration over the last two decades. To the contrary, it has increasingly insulated the economy from foreign competition, while the rest of the world has continued to open up and integrate. Protecting manufacturing jobs benefits only a small percentage of the workforce, while imposing substantial costs on the rest. Nor will there be any political payoff from trying to do so: after all, even as the United States has stepped back from global commerce, anger and extremism have mounted.
In reality, the path to justice and political stability is also the path to prosperity. What the U.S. economy needs now is greater exposure to pressure from abroad, not protectionist barriers or attempts to rescue specific industries in specific places. Instead of demonizing the changes brought about by international competition, the U.S. government needs to enact domestic policies that credibly enable workers to believe in a future that is not tied to their local employment prospects. The safety net should be broader and apply to people regardless of whether they have a job and no matter where they live. Internationally, Washington should enter into agreements that increase competition in the United States and raise taxation, labor, and environmental standards. It is the self-deluding withdrawal from the international economy over the last 20 years that has failed American workers, not globalization itself.
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