15 March 2013

Free Trade and Imperialism

[Note:  I generally support free trade in theory.  I do subscribe to the belief that everyone should be allowed to trade freely with whomever they choose, insofar as doing so does not infringe upon anyone else’s rights.  However, I also recognize that a theoretical moral ideal often has little to do with reality.]

Rubio’s only statement on military intervention, as far as I can tell, was the following: “We also need to engage in the world. If we’re living in a global economy America must be wise in how it uses its global influence. We can’t solve every war. We can’t be involved in every armed conflict, but we also can’t be retreating from the world. And so that balance is critically important for us to strike, because we live in a global economy.”  [Emphasis added.]

The idea that America’s (potential) economic interests abroad justify an interventionist foreign policy is hardly new.  Anyone familiar with history, which is to say very few, know that this sort of economically-motivated imperialism was a matter of federal policy prior to the civil war.  Thus, for over one hundred fifty years—intermittently, of course—America has pursued a foreign policy that tends to be aligned with trade interests.

This, naturally, poses a problem for a certain type of libertarian.  This certain type of libertarian values trade above all else, and thinks that foreign is the bees’ knees, and will provide wealth untold if only governments would stop acting like irrational turds and just let people trade already.  Needless to say, this is a rather juvenile and incredibly naïve way of looking at the world, and belies a large amount of historical ignorance, for trade is often used by certain war racketeers, peddling their own prosperity gospel of force, to justify an imperialist and interventionist foreign, which tends to be rather costly in its application.

Good libertarians are rightly aghast at this sort of thinking, but are also left with trying to square the circle of being anti-war and pro-free-trade.  For, as has been the case on several occasions, and will likely be the case many times in the future, promoting trade is used as an excuse for war.  (I note, with some degree of amusement, that justifying war by trade is a weird form of the broken window fallacy, in that the main theory of trade-cum-war is that if we simply destroy a bunch of resources, we will soon be able to a sell a bunch of resources to a new group of people on account of having destroyed their resources. It’s all rather neat.)

I think the blind spot in the utopic libertarian’s philosophy is a proper understanding of how the world actually works.  In the complete absence of a state, most trade would be completely localized since production would not be hampered by collusive laws, and most foreign trade would face the problem of high shipping and transportation costs.  In fact, my belief is that if every state/government disappeared tomorrow, foreign trade would diminish severely and relatively quickly, since it is usually state policies that prop up trade.*

Additionally, I would bet that societies scale down to considerably smaller groups, and that those groups are more homogeneous.  There would be more societies, and each society would surprisingly un-diverse.  In a truly anarchist world, we would be poorer and less comfortable, less prone to foreign trade, and more socially insular.  Personally, I think this is a good thing, but I can see why people might be inclined to reject it.  At any rate, the point I’m getting at is that the dream of anarchy and its actual reality are quite different, and almost polar opposite.  But I digress.

The main point I was driving at is that libertarian proponents of free trade need to think long and hard about this policy position because its practical application, as history has shown and will continue to show, is that trade can and will be used to justify war.  And so, libertarians may end up being put in the unenviable position of justifying the policy of free trade on the grounds of civil liberty and individual autonomy while decrying the wars that come with it on the grounds that wars violate civil rights and individual autonomy.  It’s not going to be a comfortable position, to say the least.

* I’ve noted before that the federal government basically hamstrings domestic businesses, which has the practical effect of propping up foreign trade because it gives foreign businesses a better chance to compete with domestic businesses.