Rethinking Free Trade

I have long supported free trade as beneficial. But I have also long derided utilitarianism, which is the doctrinal basis for claiming that free trade is beneficial. And I have long opposed the idea of open borders, in part because of the utilitarian claims of its supporters. It is time for me to resolve these contradictions.

Which way should I go? Should I sustain my anti-utilitarian position and oppose free trade as well as open borders? Or should I become a consistent utilitarian and support both free trade and open borders?

A digression about utilitarianism is in order. Utilitarianism, in this context, implies a belief in an aggregate social-welfare function (SWF) — a mystical summing of the states of happiness (or unhappiness) of myriad persons over an infinite series of points in time. It is the aim of utilitarians (who are mainly leftists and economists, though the categories overlap) to push SWF upward, toward (imaginary) collective nirvana. In so doing, the utilitarian makes himself the judge of whether an increase in A’s happiness at the expense of B (e.g., income redistribution) will result in an increase or decrease in SWF. An argument for this presumption (which is familiar mainly to economists), is based on the hypothesis of diminishing marginal utility (DMU) — a hypothesis that I have refuted at length. Suffice it to say that if A gains pleasure by poking B in the eye, no one — not even a Ph.D. economist — can prove that A’s pleasure outweighs B’s pain. In fact, common sense — which is embedded in eons of tradition — tells us that the act that brings pleasure to A should be punished precisely because of the way in which that pleasure is gained.

How does all of that pertain to free trade and open borders? Like this: Economists defend free trade and open borders because, in the aggregate, such things — in the long run — lead to greater economic efficiency and thus to greater total output (measured in constant dollars). And they are right about that. I have no doubt of it. But, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, in the long run we are all dead, and in the meantime some of us pay for the betterment of others.

Moreover, there are economists and others who like to conjoin the economic truth about the long-run consequences of free trade and open borders with statements about liberty: People ought to be free to exchange goods and services voluntarily. People ought to be free to live where they like.

Only a jejune anarchist will take such pronouncements as absolutes. Murder for hire is almost almost universally disapproved, as are many other crimes, even in this “enlightened”age. And I am unaware of a movement among affluent leftists to open their living rooms to the homeless, nor to repeal laws against trespass.

The question is, as always, where to strike a balance between the interests of those who benefit from free trade and open borders, and the interests of those for whom such things mean loss of income or higher taxes. How do the gains that accrue to some (e.g., less-expensive Lexi and abundant, low-priced nanny services) offset the burdens borne by working-class taxpayers whose jobs move overseas and whose school taxes rise to cover the costs of educating migrant children?

I ask these questions in connection with a broader issue: the purpose of our national government. It exists precisely for the reasons stated in the Preamble to the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To put it bluntly but correctly, the national government exists not for the benefit of the people of the whole world or any part of it outside the United States, but for the benefit of the citizens of the United States.

Yes, some Americans benefit from free trade, and some Americans benefit from massive immigration. But not all Americans do. And it is the job of the national government to serve all of the people. A balance needs to be struck. And those who pay the price of free trade and massive immigration must be compensated in some way.

How and how much? Those are questions that I will grapple with in future posts.

Related posts:
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Gains from Trade
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XVIII) – third item
Prosperity Isn’t Everything

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