The Corner

Politics & Policy

What Do You Do When the Crowd Is Just Wrong?

At the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney notes that Donald Trump’s attitude toward free trade is helping him in the Republican primary:

Free trade is an item of dogma for Republicans, especially conservatives. Trump rejects that dogma, and he benefits politically.

“You’ll have some of these conservative people, like at National Review,” Trump said at Radford, “but they don’t have a clue. They don’t understand this.” Trump then put on his William F. Buckley accent: “They’ll say, ‘Trump is not a true conservative, because he wants to charge a tax to a country.’ Well, they’re taxing us, OK? So if they’re taxing us, I wanna charge the same tax.”

This is a direct appeal to the working class, which has seen wages fall in recent decades while the rest of the economy generally has grown. “Donald Trump will do more for the middle class and low-income workers” than any other candidate, former Rep. Virgil Goode said before the rally Monday. “It’s time we had a president who stood up for American workers first,” Goode said before blasting free trade.

Carney simultaneously notes that:

Economists agree on nearly nothing, and honest economists admit that there’s very little they can reliably prove about causes and effects. The exception is trade: Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman and every economist in between has concluded that open international trade improves the welfare of all countries involved.

In other words: a) Donald Trump is wrong about trade; b) a lot of voters are also wrong about trade; and c) because being wrong about trade can be politically advantageous, Donald Trump is likely to benefit from his position.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about this problem recently, especially in light of the manner in which any criticism of Trump is turned into a broader debate about class. More specifically, I’ve been wondering what pro-free-trade presidential candidates are supposed to do when their correct positions are unpopular? To listen to Trump’s fans, the mere act of debating free trade’s virtues is a terrible sign of “elitism” or “disdain” or of one’s having been “bought by donors.” To listen to the Left, meanwhile, is to be told that Republicans are finally being punished for being out of step with their voters. But what if all that is irrelevant? What if free trade is good regardless of how popular it is? And what if there is no practical way for the Right to mitigate its downsides in a way that will placate its critics?

Carney writes that:

Trade has its winners and its losers. For the losers, Democrats have offered a safety net — which many working-class voters resent. Republicans have offered mostly odes to cheap goods. That doesn’t thrill everyone either.

But what, then, is the GOP supposed to do? If it can’t offer a safety net to mitigate the downsides of trade and it can’t limit trade lest it damage the welfare of the country, it’s in a bit of a moral bind isn’t it? Traditionally, the solution would be to make its case to the electorate. But, thus far at least, any attempt to do that is met with howls of “establishment!” or “donor class!” — from both Left and Right. Anyone can sniffily say “sorry guys, but your chickens are coming home to roost.” But what exactly is the farmer supposed to do about? In this case, the people do seem to be wrong. Is it moral to follow them over the cliff?

It is often asserted that questions such as these are “arrogant” in some way because they presume that the “masses” can be wrong. I disagree. In my view, the truly “arrogant” move would be to pander to the crowd on the presumption that it is mindless and cannot therefore be convinced. If one believes that free trade is good for the country, one is obliged to say so. If one believes that another is being conned, one is obliged to say so. If one believes that one’s party is making a mistake, one is obliged to say so. Day in, day out, I am told that my refusal to get on board with the party’s protectionist wing will be my downfall, and that my preferred candidates are shooting themselves in the foot by continuing to toe the party’s traditional line. Perhaps this is true. But I’m not sure what choice we have. On trade, as on a host of other issues, I believe strongly that my approach is best for the country. If the people don’t agree that’s their prerogative, but truth is not the same thing as politics, and it is sinful to propose otherwise.


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