Sans Frontiers

People sometimes ask me what it’s like behind the scenes at Sans Everything. Pretty luxurious, I usually say. When you’re dealing with an operation of this size, you really notice the benefits of economies of scale. Last week for example, we decided to re-do all the ensuite bathrooms, and because our order for marble is so large, the same supplier has offered to put a second fireplace in the ballroom at no cost. Yet despite our high-toned surround, life in Sans mansion can get pretty boyish and jocular at times. Take Jeet, for example. From the outside, you might guess that he spends most of his time up in the library, in order to bolster his already phenomenal learning across such an impressive range of subjects. In reality, however, he has practically moved into the pool room (he does some of his best writing in there) and loves to flick his towel at the rest of us whenever we so much as poke our head in the sauna.

This same mischevious spirit has now appeared on the blog itself, in Jeet’s recent post on Barack Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee. Like John in his response below, I was struck by the passage in which Jeet contrasts his economic views to that of the other writers of this blog: “I believe I’m the only skeptic of our group when it comes to neoliberalism and the policies that are often described as ‘free trade’ (but which are in fact managed trade agreements designed to bolster corporate power).”

John has already made many of the points I would make, so let me add only three quick comments.

I could not help noticing that Jeet runs together the principle of free trade with particular trade deals that, although they have “free trade” in their name, do not in fact liberalize trade. What struck me about this aspect of Jeet’s post is how it echoes a line of thinking that was once most common on the right, but increasingly seems to be employed by the left. It is the idea that you can refute an ideal or principle by pointing to a case in which it has been poorly or disasterously implemented. When the Soviet Union was around for example, left-wingers were often careful to distinguish between Marxism and Stalinism. Marx’s philosophy was one thing, they would point out, what was being done in the Soviet Union in its name quite another. The difference between the two is evident in the fact that there have been Marxist critics of the Soviet Union (such as Terry Eagleton).

Leftists who made a distinction between Marxism and Stalinism were making a fair point. To refute Marx, you had to go beyong the USSR, and point to problems with his actual philosophy (such as, say, the labour theory of value). By using dubious free trade deals to attack the principle of liberal trade, Jeet’s position is reminiscent of conservative anti-communists who failed to distinguish between Marx and Stalin.

Perhaps this only shows that dismissing a given philosophy by pointing to its thwarted implementation is a temptation we all sometimes succumb to. But it seems to me that when it comes to defending our own views, whatever our politics, we invariably distinguish between the principles we hold and cases where those principles have been implemented in a hamfisted way. If that is the case, consistency would seem to demand that we judge rival views by the same standard. In the case of Jeet’s objection to free trade, this would require showing not only that free trade has sometimes not been advanced by particular trade agreements, but showing that it can never be. That strikes me as a tall order, to say the least.

The second thing from Jeet’s post that struck me was not something he said, but a remark he guotes from Nation writer John Nicols:

Next, Obama needs to go to Pittsburgh and deliver a very serious, very detailed speech in which he makes it clear that he is the only remaining candidate who is fundamentally opposed to current U.S. trade policies — and that if he is elected he will drop the fast-track model for negotiating these deals. That speech should be delivered at the international headquarters of the United Steelworkers of America in the city’s downtown.

Nicols, I take it, is no fan of free trade either. What is strange to me is how widespread such a view has become on the left. I would argue that protectionism of the kind Nicols is calling for is not in fact a progressive view. This is because it is gives too much weight to nationalism, and seeks to protect the jobs of American workers at the expense of workers in poorer countries. I much prefer the more inclusive philosophy of Peter Singer, who points out the problem with rich-world protectionism in his book The Ethics Of Globalization:

Since Mexico is a much poorer country than the United States, any tranfer of work from the United States to Mexico can be expected to raise the income of people who are, on average, much less well off than those U.S. workers who lost their jobs. Those who favour reducing poverty globally, rather than only in their own country, should see this as a good thing.

In line with Singer’s comment, I would argue that the thing for unions to do is not to oppose free trade agreements and support proectionism with the frequency that they do, but to try to improve the working conditions of people in Mexico and elsewhere, by fighting for eight-hour work days and other benefits that union activism helped establish in rich countries.

Finally, I could not help but notice Jeet’s use of the work “skeptic” to describe his economic views. How often have we heard journalists describe themselves as skeptics, in contrast to all the highly credulous people who disagree with them? Announcing oneself as a skeptic has become one of the most common rhetorical moves of our time. Yet it is a misleading way of putting things. As in this case, the disagreement is not between skeptics and non-skeptics, but people who believe in different things, i.e. free trade and protectionism. Moreover, there is a certain irony in how popular the “I’m a skeptic” move has become. The herd-of-independent-minds aspect was well brought out by a friend of mine who told me he wanted to write the most iconoclastic book imaginable. “What would the title be?,” I asked.

“Against contrarianism,” he replied.

3 thoughts on “Sans Frontiers

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