Clouds
I sometimes wonder whether anti-globalisation activists have some kind of automatic text generator, which works more or less like this: you enter an idea which you disapprove of, say “free trade”, and the programme then generates sentences embedded with words like “dogmatic”, “absolutist”, “blind faith”, “sacrosanct”, “totemic” and “evangelical”.

After that, you enter an idea which you do approve of, say “protectionism”, and the programme combines it with words like “flexibility”, “nuanced”, “intellectual honesty”, “challenging” and “questioning”.

Whilst I am sure that the latest piece by Noreena Hertz, “Is protectionism really all that bad?“, was not written by a machine, it certainly contains the kind of anti-free-market rhetoric one would expect from the author of The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy.

Ms Hertz’s suggestion for the developed world: “[P]rotectionism can be the lifeline a struggling country needs to survive. It can provide the breathing space an economy needs to retrench and retool its industries and workers”. And for the developing world: “[B]eing granted a period to nurture and tend to some of their industries may allow them to develop sectors with the requisite resilience to then withstand the rough and tumble of the global marketplace.”

And what about Smoot-Hawley tariffs and the collapse of world trade in the 1930s? According to Ms Hertz, in the 1930s global trade shrank simply because global demand shrank.

But if tariffs have no independent effect, then why does Ms Hertz want to enact them in the first place? I thought the whole point of tariffs was to hamper trade flows?

Ms Hertz also stresses that her championing of “temporary” protectionism for nascent or crisis-torn industries was not a plea for creating sealed-off economies. But her proposal suffers from the same problems as conventional protectionism; successful industries cannot be grown in an incubator.

A closed economy is not a testing ground for the world market; it is a very differently structured economy. Ms Hertz assumes that while an economy is still closed, the government already knows which sectors will prosper once the borders are open, when in fact the only way of finding this out is opening them up.

Judging from her use of vocabulary, Ms Hertz appears to think of government as a nurturing and mothering institution. But once we depart from this assumption and allow for self-interested actors in the political sphere, the case against protectionism becomes overwhelming. It can pay off for policy-makers to buy support by granting protection selectively, and it can pay for businesses to campaign and lobby for favours.

If we want to get out of the crisis and back on a stable growth path, it is essential that entrepreneurial effort goes into innovation and other productivity-raising activities, not into rent-seeking. Embracing either the old-style nationalistic protectionism, or the trendy international socialism promoted by Noreena Hertz and her followers could therefore be disastrous.

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Head of Health and Welfare

Dr Kristian Niemietz joined the IEA in 2008 as Poverty Research Fellow, becoming its Senior Research Fellow in 2013 and Head of Health and Welfare in 2015. Kristian is also a Fellow of the Age Endeavour Fellowship. He studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). In 2013, he completed a PhD in Political Economy at King’s College London. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and at King's College London, where he taught Economics throughout his postgraduate studies. He is a regular contributor to various journals in the UK, Germany and Switzerland.

12 thoughts on “The noisy takeover: global protectionism and the death of free trade”

  1. Posted 08/04/2009 at 10:21 | Permalink

    The whole protectionist idea is completely nuts.

    As a thought experiment, imagine that Scotland (or any other small area that is currently part of a larger trading bloc) declared itself independent and refused to import anything from anybody. What would happen to living standards?

  2. Posted 08/04/2009 at 10:21 | Permalink

    The whole protectionist idea is completely nuts.

    As a thought experiment, imagine that Scotland (or any other small area that is currently part of a larger trading bloc) declared itself independent and refused to import anything from anybody. What would happen to living standards?

  3. Posted 08/04/2009 at 11:17 | Permalink

    Hi Mark,
    why stop at that level? The area where I live has a large Arab population, so one could argue that the Shish and Shwarma industry there has an has an unfair competitive advantage vis-a-vis Anglo-Saxon neighbourhoods. To give the nascent industry of Arab fast food in these latter places a fair start, trade between the different London boroughs ought to be restricted – unless approved of by a Fairness Committee.

  4. Posted 08/04/2009 at 11:17 | Permalink

    Hi Mark,
    why stop at that level? The area where I live has a large Arab population, so one could argue that the Shish and Shwarma industry there has an has an unfair competitive advantage vis-a-vis Anglo-Saxon neighbourhoods. To give the nascent industry of Arab fast food in these latter places a fair start, trade between the different London boroughs ought to be restricted – unless approved of by a Fairness Committee.

  5. Posted 08/04/2009 at 11:42 | Permalink

    Kris, why even stop there? Maybe each and every one of us ought to refuse to trade with anybody else whatsoever.

  6. Posted 08/04/2009 at 11:42 | Permalink

    Kris, why even stop there? Maybe each and every one of us ought to refuse to trade with anybody else whatsoever.

  7. Posted 08/04/2009 at 11:45 | Permalink

    Good to see the old ‘infant industry’ argument doesn’t seem to have grown up.

    In theory, if large enough benefits are expected, they should induce domestic investment in an infant industry even without any assistance from government (paid for by taxpayers). But unless the later benefits will more than repay the earlier costs, protection cannot be justified on economic grounds.

    In other words, either a domestic infant industry doesn’t need protection or else it doesn’t deserve it.

  8. Posted 08/04/2009 at 11:45 | Permalink

    Good to see the old ‘infant industry’ argument doesn’t seem to have grown up.

    In theory, if large enough benefits are expected, they should induce domestic investment in an infant industry even without any assistance from government (paid for by taxpayers). But unless the later benefits will more than repay the earlier costs, protection cannot be justified on economic grounds.

    In other words, either a domestic infant industry doesn’t need protection or else it doesn’t deserve it.

  9. Posted 12/04/2009 at 21:57 | Permalink

    Closing borders will cause downgrading the trade. Besides, it is just impossible having web based supply competition already in place.

  10. Posted 12/04/2009 at 21:57 | Permalink

    Closing borders will cause downgrading the trade. Besides, it is just impossible having web based supply competition already in place.

  11. Posted 14/04/2009 at 12:40 | Permalink

    “the old ‘infant industry’ argument doesn’t seem to have grown up”

    And it probably won’t. While Latin America was still hyperprotectionist, its “infant industries” somehow managed to remain in their infancy forever. Protectionism is the next best thing to eternal youth.

  12. Posted 14/04/2009 at 12:40 | Permalink

    “the old ‘infant industry’ argument doesn’t seem to have grown up”

    And it probably won’t. While Latin America was still hyperprotectionist, its “infant industries” somehow managed to remain in their infancy forever. Protectionism is the next best thing to eternal youth.

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