a question for anti-statists

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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36 Responses

  1. …it seems downright unethical to enter into free trade agreements like NAFTA and then subsidize our own, say, corn farmers.

    I tend to view food subsidies as national security. That puts it outside the realm of ‘free trade’.

    As for other industries, yeah, if they can make it cheaper in China and the same quality, let them do it.Report

    • But what if our crop subsidies contribute to instability in other regions, thereby indirectly undermining our national security? Beyond that, though, which crops warrant subsidy, and how do you make that decision legislatively without severe regulatory capture (see, eg., sugar subsidies)? Moreover, there is an issue here of subsidies crowding out smaller businesses who can’t compete with the lower prices caused by agricultural subsidies, isn’t there? And beyond that, can’t just about anything be deemed a national security issue on these grounds – for instance, our economy, including our ability to get crops to market, needs vehicles to function, so subsidizing vehicles becomes a national security issue, etc.?Report

      • It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand the subsidies create poverty in other countries but on the other it protects us from trade pressure and starvation here. I certainly see both sides of the debate but I still believe it is a necessary evil.

        As for the types of crops, I think you keep it basic: corn, beans, grain. Everything else is a luxury (and also logistically possible with backyard gardens).

        One other aspect of the need for domestic production is not just national security but also national health. I don’t want our food supply left in the hands of third world countries with unreliable growing methods and poor health standards.Report

        • Perhaps we could cut back on the subsidization of corn if we rid ourselves of noxious policies that make hfcs such an alluring alternative to sugar.

          Also, rather than subsidies to keep our food supply out of “hands of third world countries with unreliable growing methods and poor health standards”, why not simply ban importation of these products, rather than subsidizing domestic growers?Report

          • I could see banning imports from countries whose product was deemed unsafe though once again, I just don’t see this being a problem really. If a country is exporting unsafe produce we’ll just stop buying it won’t we?Report

            • I’d like to think so. I wasn’t necessarily advocating this policy; just offering it as an alternative to subsidizing our farmers.

              Not that my family’s never benefitted from our bizarre ag subsidy programs…Report

        • Isn’t the picture a bit more complex than food=national security, though?

          I mean after all, food glut/corn subsidies = fatter Americans. Fatter Americans = fewer weight acceptable recruits to US Military. Fewer recruits = less than optimal troop levels.

          Second issue, agribusiness likes mass cultivation of a single-variety of crops, which is at enormous risk to disease, pest, etc… So should government step in and mandate or plan crop diversification in the name of national security?

          America feeds the world, subsidies translate into environment unfriendly ethanol and a really annoying month of Iowa in the news quadrennially. I’d be willing to trade those in for an increased chance of rationing down the road.Report

  2. Does free trade exist? Can it?

    Perhaps I’m being a bit troublesome; I guess it can, and sometimes does, but I’d not fall into the trap of calling NAFTA a free-trade agreement, notwithstanding the “FT” in “NAFTA”. Which is to say, I’m not sure that it can exist if agreements and organizations — that is, the State itself — are involved. I incline to agree with the free-traders who dub what these agreements represent “managed trade”. I guess all that goes to say that I don’t think free trade can be implemented. It can take place or it cannot.

    I’ve never been comfortable with calling myself a protectionist, but I’ve always had sympathies, to some extent or another, but I’m not sure that I’ve figured out how to be a “protectionist” and an “anti-statist”. Perhaps it’s an untenable position, and to be an anti-statist, one must ultimately resort to autarky. I’m not opposed to this, but I don’t know how many people, “left”, “right”, or elsewhere I’ll find who assent to this position, maybe for good reason.Report

  3. E.D. Kain says:

    Well, as to “national security” Mike – that is a good point. We do need to have control of our own food sources. I disagree, however, that this needs to be done through crop subsidies. And Nathan, I appreciate your struggle with this. It is simply becoming too much of a sticking-point for me. I cannot see how one can be both anti-statist and believe in the government intervening to protect specific industries.Report

    • How do you ensure A) An adequate amount of food production and B) a majority domestically produced food supply without subsidies/protections?

      Agrilculture is the highest risk business there is. Without a serious safety net for growers you would see production dramatically decline overnight.Report

      • I think cost factors in here, though. Produce isn’t that cheap to ship, so we’re bound to still have a good deal of food produced in the States. Besides that, we have very efficient means to produce food here, and we have largely mechanized much of our production (for good or ill) limiting the need for imports.Report

        • Where does your produce come from now? You’re in Colorado, correct? How many banana trees do you see around there? Oranges? We’ve come to expect certain vegetables year-round, not just because it’s a luxury, but because it keeps us healthier.Report

          • Nah – I’m in Arizona. And I suppose my produce comes from all over the place – a lot of it local, and a whole hell of a lot of it from California. My wife won’t buy produce from outside the U.S.Report

            • I was in AZ myself a few weeks ago. (Chinle, AZ is an interesting place to visit.)

              The point being, if you’re in AZ and your bananas come from Florida…why not from Mexico? It’s probably closer. So that sort of renders the point about distance making imports impractical moot.Report

  4. Huzzah! I knew we’d get you to come around to the Dark Side eventually!

    Anyhow, in terms of implementation, I’m increasingly of the opinion that it can only really be done via bilateral treaties. I’m fairly despondent about the ability of the WTO to get it done – at best, it only seems useful for mediating trade disputes between powerful countries. Regardless, free trade begins at home – it’s our responsibility as a nation to lead by example.Report

  5. E.D. Kain says:

    Leading by example is all well and good but when we have destructive crop subsidies that enable Americans to use – in the name of free trade – our exporting muscle to crowd out competition in foreign countries, it just seems to give America and free trade in general a bad name. Unless we play fair, our example will only lead to resentment and backlash.Report

  6. The only remedy for the problem you describe ED is to either dump our surplus into starving countries or burn it on the docks.Report

  7. So back to my question: How do you ensure adequate domestic production without subsidies?Report

  8. E.D. Simply outsourcing our food production to Mexico and Canada would be dangerous. And with a (no pun intended) hungry market in the US depending on foreign-produced food, the profit potential for other countries is enormous.

    Nathan, I would say minimal keep-us-from starving or being unfairly pressured by other countries is a fair measure. I’m not advocating all crops be subsidized and believe me, I love imported foods. I just want to make sure we never see a repeat of the 1930’s again.Report

  9. Clint says:

    Why is agriculture such a dangerous business to be in? It seems to me, considering the political support for farms across the spectrum, that it’s one of the only safe places to be as a rent-seeker… This is not to mention the copious agricultural benefits that come from expanded export market access. I feel like a protectionist argument in favor of agricultural support picks the wrong side of the chicken/egg question; with sizable agribusiness, which is relatively diversified, mechanized, and specialized, there is much more to be gained (both through the Doha round of the WTO or individual trade liberalization efforts) for American farmers in exports than lost through unsubsidized competition.

    In terms of implementation, I am skeptical of the usefulness of both bilateral trade agreements or the likelihood of a negotiated, forward-looking regime led by the WTO. Perhaps I am simply a true believer, but, considering the copious exports and consumer benefits gained from unfettered trade, why should the United States not immediately and unilaterally eliminate all existing trade barriers?Report

  10. mike farmer says:

    One problem with protectionism is that many proponents don’t seem to think that the higher prices it incurs are harmful — there is no incentive to find ways to lower costs. It amounts to a tax on consumers to subsidize favored industries, if it doesn’t cause consumers to substitute an alternative to the product, which eventually hurts the companies as much as, if not more than, foreign competition. Plus, protectionism can mask the signal that certain products should be imported because it’s inefficient to produce them in this country, or it masks the fact that business taxes and regulatory burdens are too high, or that labor costs are too high due to unions pricing themselves out of the market for a particular product.

    However, as far as low-cost labor in foreign countries is concerned, laborers who don’t make much and are not rewarded for their labor are usually not innovative or industrious, so in a free economy where people are rewarded for their labor, innovation and industriousness — and labor costs aren’t artificially high — the efficiency and productivity are usually high enough to offset the foreign advantage of low-cost labor so that prices are competitive and quality is superior.

    We should definitely be going in the direction of free trade. If we use our brainpower and skills to build better products at high productivity levels, we will always do better than with protectionsim.Report

  11. Kyle says:

    I don’t know how you feel about this E.D. but I’ve always found the siren song of protecting the American worker to be terribly one-sided.

    Sure protectionism helps keeps blue collar jobs here, in America, but doesn’t that come at the expense of the world’s truly poor?

    Anyway, trade policy isn’t really my thing but it seems to me from a legal-national-cultural point of view we have certain values we’re willing to pay more for. Americans think workers should have the right to unionize, we support OHSA, limit work weeks, raise the minimum wage, have child labor laws, and an entire web of regulation that affects the domestic cost of labor.

    We, generally, value those things enough to pay for them. So when/if we develop free trade relations with countries with different but primarily fewer, less stringent labor regulations aren’t we in effect undermining our own values?Report

  12. Jaybird says:

    It comes down, to me, to the question of “why do you have the right to say that I cannot trade my X to this particular person for his or her Y?”

    The answer “we took a vote! Love it or leave it!” becomes less convincing every time I hear it.Report