In Trade Agreements, Do Not Let the Perfect Devour the Good

If the only feasible choice is between, on the one hand, the current degree of protectionism and, on the other hand, lowered but not eliminated protectionism, the latter option is plainly preferable.

I’m radical. I believe that each adult should be free to do whatever he pleases as long as he doesn’t prevent other adults from exercising the same amount of freedom. I have no patience for arguments that attempt to justify government prohibitions and commands on the grounds that these interventions might improve the welfare of the individuals who are directly impacted.

Every adult, in my view, has as much right to run the risk of turning her life into one of ruin as she has to strive to make her life beautiful and fulfilling. Indeed, I don’t see how freedom to do the latter is possible without the freedom to do the former. Your conception of a life well-lived might differ very much from my conception. So if I possess the power to prevent you from taking actions that, in my view, will ruin your life, I necessarily possess the power to prevent you from taking actions that, in your view, will improve your life.

Freedom is meaningless if it does not include the freedom to make poor, or even calamitous, decisions for oneself.

While I don’t deny that many people act in ways that, even by their own judgments, turn out to be personally destructive, I do not trust that any human beings will exercise wisely or knowledgeably the power to impose on others their assessments of what it means to lead a life well-lived.

Freedom is meaningless if it does not include the freedom to make poor, or even calamitous, decisions for oneself.

Therefore, I believe that every adult should be free to take whatever drugs he chooses, to gamble whatever amount of wealth he owns, to smoke however many packs of cigarettes he fancies, to patronize prostitutes, to work as a prostitute, to consume or to produce pornography featuring adult performers, to sell whatever of his body organs he likes. I’m so radical that I oppose even the requirement that occupants of automobiles buckle up!

Perfection Is Often Impossible

Yet the radicalness of my libertarianism does not prevent me from endorsing policy changes that fall short of producing outcomes that are fully libertarian.

If I encounter a policy change that I judge will make the world freer, I support that change even if it isn’t as radical as I’d like.

Being a principled libertarian or classical liberal doesn’t entail being blind to political reality. If I encounter a proposed policy change that I judge will make the world freer than it would be absent that change, I support that change even if—as is almost always the case—it isn’t as radical as I’d like.

Here’s a simple and relatively uncontroversial example. I’m convinced that, according to sound economics and ethics, the best corporate tax rate is zero. Any rate higher than zero is not only economically harmful but ethically offensive.

Nevertheless, I applauded the successful 2017 effort to lower the corporate tax rate in the U.S. from 35 percent to 21 percent. I applauded this effort not because I believe a corporate tax rate of 21 percent is ideal, but, instead, because I’m quite sure that a 21 percent tax rate is ethically and economically superior to any higher rate.

While I’d much prefer no corporate taxation whatsoever, lower rates are better than higher rates.

While I’d much prefer no corporate taxation whatsoever, lower rates are better than higher rates. And if a rate lower than 21 percent is not now politically feasible, then I support a reduction of the rate to 21 percent because it is the best option that is currently practicable.

Few libertarians would disagree with my practical reason for applauding the recent reduction of corporate rates—a fact that makes surprising the opposition that I often get from libertarians who are disappointed to learn of my support for NAFTA and other free trade agreements.

The Acceptable Imperfection of Trade Agreements

My ideal is for each government to immediately abolish all tariffs and other trade restrictions, regardless of what any other government does or doesn’t do. That is, I fully support a policy of unilateral free trade. Such a policy is the libertarian ideal.

This fact, though, does not render this ideal politically feasible. In my view (which is hardly controversial), the U.S. government will not any time soon unilaterally abolish all tariffs and other trade restraints. I call on it to do so. I will continue to call on it to do so. But a policy of unilateral free trade is simply not now in the cards.

So what’s the alternative?

If the only feasible choice is between the current degree of protectionism and lowered but not eliminated protectionism, the latter option is plainly preferable.

One alternative to the degree of protectionism currently in place is to live with this degree of protectionism. But what if a second alternative is available—a second alternative under which the degree of protectionism is lowered but not reduced to zero?

By my lights, if the only feasible choice is between, on the one hand, the current degree of protectionism and, on the other hand, lowered but not eliminated protectionism, the latter option is plainly preferable. Indeed, by libertarian standards, it is unethical not to support this second option. The reason is that failure to support this second option is, in effect, to support the first option—that is, to support higher trade restrictions.

Each and every trade agreement fails to make trade as free as possible. Each such agreement contains a nest of provisions that, when judged against a standard of perfection, is unacceptable.

I’ll continue to support trade agreements that make trade freer despite the unfortunate fact that they don’t make trade fully free.

But because in the U.S. a policy of unilateral free trade is currently politically infeasible—and because trade agreements have a solid record of making trade freer (although never completely free)—I support trade agreements even as I recognize their flaws.

I would love nothing more than to discover that a policy of unilateral free trade is politically possible. Were I to find myself in this happy world, I would no longer support trade agreements, for then the better option would indeed be the ideal: unilateral free trade. But until I find myself in this happy world, I’ll continue to support trade agreements that make trade freer despite the unfortunate fact that they don’t make trade fully free.

This article was reprinted from the American Institute for Economic Research.

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