Let me concede right off the bat, that I know less about economics than Derb. So when he says he doesn’t know much, I know less.
That said, I’d like to come at this from a slightly different angle, individual liberty. Conservatives of nearly all stripes, including protectionists and free traders, are typically quite comfortable arguing against government regulations which do violence or otherwise impose on individual liberty for the sake of the “common good.” Anti-smoking laws, laws restricting employer’s rights to hire whoever they want, speech codes, anti-parents’ rights initiatives, etc: pretty much all conservatives are fluent in the arguments against such things. Why shouldn’t I be able to hire only Christians in my hardware store? Why can’t I smoke if the proprietor of the bar is okay with it? Or, why can’t I allow smoking if I am the proprietor? And so on. When someone says, But it’s better for the society as a whole to ban smoking or force minority hiring, the conservative says something along the lines of: “Maybe so, but losing individual liberty is worse. And the government does not or should not have the authority it is asserting.”
But for some reason, free trade is exempted from this rule. By what right does the government in Washington tell me where and from whom I can buy my rubber shower shoes or stereo equipment? Even if you could prove that free trade was contrary to the public good (I don’t think it is, though it’s certainly a net loss for some people in the society), why does that mean the government has the right to forbid me to do what I want? We’re not talking about censorship of the lewd or purient (which I think can be defended) we are talking about prohibitions on what kind of car or tractor I can buy and, inevitably, sell. And these are not small regulations. When the federal government raises taxes on foreign goods, it is surely putting many small businessmen out of work by making the materials they need too expensive. And it is transferring huge sums of the consumer’s money to companies and corporations through the special tax code at the border.
“The socialist society,” wrote the late philosopher Robert Nozick, “would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.” It seems to me that regardless of the economic objections, anti-free trade conservatives need to answer a second set of questions about why Washington should make these hugely important decisions for its citizens when we constantly claim it is outrageous for Washington to make much, much less significant decisions.