Extricating Oneself From a Buzz-Saw
While they of course retain distinct local flavors, it’s amazing how similar the major metropolitan areas are. One will encounter many of the same chain stores in New York, London, Milan, Paris, and Cairo. And the downtown areas of most American midsize towns will have the same strip malls and chain restaurants. To be sure, there’s still plenty of local flavor. But not as much as there was when I was a kid, let alone when my parents were kids.
Joyner goes on to point out that, even as monoculture expands, it is becoming a better monoculture, in no small part due to globalization. Still, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and in reflection, I was just wrong in arguing that globalization and free trade actually encourage the development of community and local culture. In addition to the flaws with this conclusion others have noted, I failed to recognize the manner in which a service-based economy renders geography, such a crucial element in the development of a community’s character, less and less relevant.
That’s not the end of the fight, though. As commenter Sam M notes:
But of course, places like Pittburgh and Buffalo were as much built by trade and globalism as they were destroyed by same. (If they have, in fact been destroyed.) People in Pittsburgh will be glad to tell you what an economic powerhouse the place used to be, and rattle of a list of all the grand things steel from the Homestead Works helped build. Things like the Empire State Building. And, er… Europe. And anyone who has studied the place will be equally quick to tell you how the mills gave rise to one of the truly unique places in the modern world. A city made up of almost 100 distinct neighborhoods, some based on ethnicity, some on economics, some on chance. Either way, whether you like the culture of the city or not, one certainly developed. People care so miuch about it, in fact, that they continually wring their hands about whether or not it can survive.
This sounds right to me – well, except for the suggestion that my beloved Buffalo may not be destroyed, much as I may wish that to be true.
The other issue, to which I keep going back is that protectionism (which I never argued or implied means a ban on trade, but rather merely means increased tariffs and subsidies) requires the action of a distant, centralized government, both Constitutionally and practically. This ultimately means that the centralized government gets to pick the communities that will win and the communities that will lose. Rest assured, the more politically connected a community’s main business, the more it will be protected; the less connected its main business, the more likely it will be left to fend against a retaliatory tariff of some sort.
For example, in a harshly worded critique of my arguments for free trade and globalism, James Matthew Wilson responds (scroll to comments):
Therefore, [global free trade] takes all agency away from individual societies and communities affected by such policies. In some localities, a free trade arrangement might be advantageous, in many it would not; in most, some prudently negotiated open and closed trade policies would likely emerge — were the people actually affected by such policies allowed to shape them. This kind of self-government in commerce for individual polities may be in some ways inefficient, because it requires the regular and particularly applied use of human reason. As Tocqueville observes, this is frustrating to the half-intelligent and harrassed who seek shelter in the great shadow of generalized ideas. But if politics is an exercise in practical reason, any blanket theory that robs that reason of its power and relieves it of duties is likely to result in an insidious kind of tyranny.
I’m not sure where I’m supposed to disagree with this, well except for the conclusion that localized decisionmaking on trade would be unfriendly to free trade. The problem is that trade policy is not made by localities, at least not in the US. If it were, then communities would have to weigh both the benefits and the consequences of their trade policies. But when trade policy is the exclusive province of the federal government, communities who succeed in obtaining tariffs or subsidies for their local industry reap all the benefits, but watch as the negative effects are either dispersed throughout the country or heaped on a handful of other communities who are left to bear the brunt of retaliatory tariffs or higher prices for their raw materials. Qualitatively this localized benefit and nationalized cost is little different from the privatized profits and socialized risks that so many of us now decry in other contexts.
To be sure, there are certainly some countries that are small enough and homogenous enough, or are relatively monolithic, economically speaking, such that their trade policy truly does represent some kind of a national consensus or interest. So far as those countries go, especially the less-developed ones, I agree that it makes little sense to insist that they adopt free trade policies.
But at least with respect to the US and other larger and/or economically heterogenous countries, a national policy of free trade is the only way that a locality can adopt anything resembling a local trade policy. Admittedly, this can’t mean formal local government tariffs, but it can mean local tax breaks, strengthened “Buy Local” campaigns, heavy taxes on stores the locality doesn’t like, ownership initiatives, etc. Federal tariffs and subsidies supplant or undermine these local measures.