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Herbert Spencer: Protectionism Is “Aggressionism”

By: Gary Galles

One of the ways Donald Trump has been an outlier in Presidential annals is the speed with which he has started living up to campaign promises. His pace is so far beyond that of recent history that one political wag suggested Americans will need to switch to dog years to keep up.

From the perspective that campaign promises are contracts with the electorate, moving expeditiously to act on what was promised is honorable. Of course, from the perspective of Americans’ welfare, it matters more whether what was promised is sensible policy.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s affinity for protectionism substitutes misleading winner vs. loser rhetoric for mutual gains from voluntary trade and turns a blind eye to the fact that “protected” winners in our economy impose far greater costs on far more other Americans. In this area, faster action from Trump is to be feared rather than eagerly anticipated. 

In addition to the lost social gains from trade that protectionism imposes on American consumers, it is troubling that the Trump administration has failed to recognize that what they portray as delivering justice for one group via protectionism necessarily commits injustice against other Americans. And given that the truth of that has been recognized for far longer than anyone today has been alive, ignoring it cannot be squared with advancing our joint well-being.

One person who understood what the Trump team widely ignores was philosopher Herbert Spencer. In particular, his The Man Versus the State, first published in 1884, got to the core of the shortcomings of protectionism. In “The Sins of Legislators,” he noted that protectionism would better be labeled “aggressionism”:

Government, begotten of aggression and by aggression, ever continues to betray its original nature by its aggressiveness.

We let ourselves be deceived by words and phrases which suggest one aspect of the facts while leaving the opposite aspect unsuggested. A good illustration of this…is seen in the use of the words “protection” and “protectionist” by the antagonists of free-trade… this so-called protection always involves aggression; and that the name aggressionist ought to be substituted for the name protectionist. For nothing can be more certain than that if, to maintain A’s profit, B is forbidden to buy of C, or is fined to the extent of the duty if he buys of C, then B is aggressed upon that A may be “protected.” Nay, “aggressionists” is a title doubly more applicable to the anti-free-traders than is the euphemistic title “protectionists;” since, that one producer may gain, ten consumers are fleeced.

Now just the like confusion of ideas…may be traced throughout all the legislation which forcibly takes the property of this man for the purpose of giving gratis benefits to that man. Habitually when one of the numerous measures thus characterized is discussed, the dominant thought is concerning the pitiable Jones who is to be protected against some evil; while no thought is given to the hard-working Brown who is aggressed upon.

No defense can be made for this appropriation of A’s possessions for the benefit of B, save one which sets out with the postulate that society as a whole has an absolute right over the possessions of each member.

Given that protectionism is at odds with the central purpose of any government dedicated to benefiting all its citizens — defending the rights people hold in themselves and their efforts against aggression, including that from government — Spencer turned to the justice of free trade, in contrast to the injustice of coercive interventions by government, in “The Proper Sphere of Government”:

What, then, do [people] want a government for? Not to regulate commerce…but simply to defend the natural rights of man — to protect person and property — to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak — in a word, to administer justice. This is the natural, the original, office of a government. It was not intended to do less: it ought not to be allowed to do more.

“Justice” comprehends only the preservation of man’s natural rights. Injustice implies a violation of those rights…no body of men can pretend that “justice” requires the enactment of any law, unless they can show that their natural rights would otherwise be infringed.

Suppose we had free trade. Could our farmer complain that it was an infringement of his natural rights, to allow the consumers to purchase their food from any other parties whose prices were lower? Could he urge that the state was not acting justly towards him, unless it forced the manufacturer to give him a high price for that, which he could get on more advantageous terms elsewhere? No. “Justice” would demand no such interference. It is clear, therefore, that if the “administration of justice” had been recognized as the only duty of government, we should never have had any [trade restrictions]; and, as the test may be applied to all other cases of restrictions upon commerce with a similar result, it is equally evident, that upon the same assumption, we should always have had free trade.

All commercial restrictions have been proved, both by past and present experience, to be eminently inimical to social prosperity; that necessity is fast forcing us towards free trade, and that we must ultimately return to the perfect commercial liberty dictated by nature, from which we should never have diverged, had there been a proper limitation of state power.

Further, Spencer saw that the harms of government protectionism extend far beyond those policies explicitly called protectionist. For Spencer, irtually everything that goes beyond protecting the rights which form the basis for universal benefits is riddled with unjust takings from political “losers.” As he wrote in “Over-legislation”:

Recognize the close kinship between the fundamental fallacy involved in…State-meddlings and the fallacy lately exploded by the free-trade agitation. These various law-made instrumentalities…all embody…the protectionist hypothesis…and the same criticism applies alike to all its proceedings.

The justice-question gets scarcely any attention; and we daily submit to be oppressed, cheated, robbed.

In that same article, Herbert Spencer provides us with reason for embarrassment at our intellectual recidivism when it comes to protectionism, as many have forgotten what careful thinkers knew many, many years ago.

Remember that for these two thousand years and more, mankind have been making regulations for commerce, which have all along been strangling some trades and killing others with kindness, and that though the proofs of this have been constantly before their eyes, they have only just discovered that they have been uniformly doing mischief.

Protectionism would be better termed aggressionism. Such aggressionism is inconsistent with the natural rights American government was to defend. Yet aggressionism has remained part and parcel of government throughout our history. That makes protectionism in many ways the essence of government, offering a reality far worse than the rhetoric, imposed by force. And while the versions of protectionism Donald Trump promises may be different in limited ways from previous incarnations (not to mention conflicting with freedom-expanding proposals that have also come from the Trump administration, such as tax rate reductions and reduced irrational regulation), those differences cannot overcome protectionism’s inherent social harm and widespread injustice. Consequently, America would benefit more from heeding Herbert Spencer’s insights than President Trump’s promises that it will be part of making us win so much we may get tired of winning.

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