Editor’s Note: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Allow myself to repeat myself, as Austin Powers might say. Well, not myself, but Adam Smith.
“‘Trade wars are good’ is the ‘ass cancer is a blast’ of economics.” — Adam Smith
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) March 2, 2018
Okay, I made that up (“So you really were repeating yourself” — The Couch). But as I pointed out not too long ago, Adam Smith did say in The Wealth of Nations:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
Leftists, like the Thugee priest Mola Ram plucking the heart out of a human sacrifice in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, wrench this quote out of context to argue for the exact opposite of what Adam Smith believed.
As I wrote:
This doesn’t mean that capitalists are evil; it means they’re human beings. Virtually every profession you can think of has a tendency to dig a moat around itself to protect its interests and defend against competition. A few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out against affordable health care for children. Retail chains such as Walmart and CVS started opening in-store clinics to provide affordable basic health care, such as vaccinations. The pediatricians rightly saw this as a threat to their monopoly over kids’ medical care. Obviously, the pediatricians didn’t think they were villains; they simply found rationalizations for why everyone should keep paying them top dollar for stuff that could be done more cheaply.
Every group, guild, trade, faction, vocation, league, class, cartel, union, and profession known to man will, given the time and opportunity, seek to protect its interests. And you know what? That’s fine because it’s normal. Complaining about it is like complaining that dogs lick their nethers and birds rain feces from the sky. You’re free to whine about it, but it will come to naught. This is not just an economic thing. The exact same dynamic exists in every realm of life, from high-school cliques to politics in general. This is simply part of the process of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “association.” We at National Review often put the interests of National Review ahead of the interests of The Weekly Standard. The New England Patriots are shameless in their prioritization of their interests over those of other NFL teams.
The only thing that turns this natural process of the human condition into a threat is when some group of people flee from fair competition — democratic, cultural, intellectual, and, yes, economic — and seek out the government to protect them (or if, like the Mafia or motorcycle gangs, they opt to operate outside the law).
Candlemakers have every right to argue that candles are preferable to light bulbs. They have every right to mount a huge ad campaign hyping the benefits of candles. But if they go to the government and persuade (or bribe) a politician or bureaucrat to penalize light-bulb makers — which is just another way of saying penalize light-bulb buyers — they’ve crossed the line. Government is not “just another word for the things we do together”; government is force, full stop. That doesn’t mean governmental force is never legitimate. Force — or, if you prefer, violence — is amoral. Violence when used to stop a rape is moral. Violence in service of rape is immoral. And so is violence to prevent people from buying light bulbs.
As Adam Smith went on to say:
It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.
The Founders had a profound appreciation of this, not just in the realm of economics but in all spheres of politics, which is why they spent so much time writing about faction.
Steel and aluminum producers are a faction. They are aided by a larger faction — i.e., voters who have a greater grasp of their own nostalgia than on economic realities. And they have a sympathetic ear in the White House. Not long ago, Republicans waxed quite righteous about the Obama administration “picking winners and losers” in the economy. I’m at a loss as to why we should stop now.
(One argument I hear a lot is that Donald Trump is just fulfilling a campaign promise so no one should get worked up. Okay, but I criticized that promise when he made it. I’m under no more obligation to withhold criticism of Trump than I was when I continued to complain about Barack Obama fulfilling campaign promises that I also thought were bad ideas.)
What’s Populism Got To Do With It?
The funny thing is that this move toward protection is celebrated or condemned as a fulfillment of Trump’s “populist” agenda. I get that we label protectionism “populist” these days — though I’m old enough to remember when protectionism was a technocratic cause. But populism is supposed to mean putting the interests of “the people” first. (The problem with populism is that populists never mean all the people; they only mean their people.) And this move isn’t in the interests of most people. How is it “populist” to punish over 300 million consumers and the 6.5 million workers in steel-consuming industries for the benefit of 140,000 workers in the steel-producing industry? Trump says trade wars are “good” — but when other nations retaliate, farmers, truckers, manufacturers, and Americans in general will pay the price.
Not long ago, Republicans waxed quite righteous about the Obama administration ‘picking winners and losers’ in the economy.
This isn’t populism in any literal meaning of the word; it’s elitism of the rankest sort. The president is abusing a law beyond its intended purpose to heap favor on a specific industry, while telling Americans that they aren’t paying enough for cars, aluminum cans, and countless other goods. Despite the fact that the U.S. steel industry already provides 70 percent of the steel used in America. This is literally conspiracy against the public.
The Perils of Nationalism, Again
The other night, I did a panel for National Review Institute commemorating the tenth anniversary of Bill Buckley’s death. It got a little . . . zesty, as Rich, Reihan, and Ramesh took up the case for a one-nation politics defined or informed by Rich and Ramesh’s “Benign Nationalism.” I went a different way. C-SPAN taped it, so you’ll be able to see the video soon enough, and I don’t want to rehash the whole thing here.
But the relevant point I made then is that nationalism — even benign nationalism — inevitably leads to centralization, because the government in Washington is the only institution that can claim to give voice to the whole nation. I know I have my forthcoming book on my brain, but my basic problem with nationalism is that it’s just another brand name for the progressive obsession with “unity.” Barack Obama talked incessantly about unity (you could look it up). But as virtually every conservative writer at the time pointed out, his definition of unity was “shut up and agree with me.”
Obama even touted “economic patriotism” — and this magazine rightly pegged it for what it really was:
Of course it is not patriotism but nationalism, albeit nationalism of a funny sort — nationalism for people who do not regard the nation itself as anything particularly remarkable.
My colleagues think a more robust form of nationalism — one that invokes or dragoons our national ethos and heritage for a partisan program — is preferable to progressive calls for unity and reliance on identity politics. I certainly agree that a nationalist program scripted by my colleagues would be infinitely preferable to one scripted by Barack Obama (or Donald Trump), but at the end of the day, I think the ethos of nationalism, taken to its logical conclusion, is no different from the ethos of socialism taken to its logical conclusion. Both teams say, “We’re all in it together” and think the state should act accordingly. And people who subscribe to a different political or economic program easily get labeled “economic traitors” (which is what the Democrats said of Mitt Romney) or just plain traitors.
When nationalism or national unity or one-nation politics is married to an economic program from Washington, it will inevitably lead to the government picking winners and losers based upon some abstract notion. That’s what the New Deal was. That’s what Wilson’s War Socialism was. And dissenters from the national unity were not celebrated, I can assure you.
President Trump shares with President Obama the idea that nations compete with each other economically. They don’t.
In times of war or a public-health crisis, national unity and one-nation politics are not only fine by me but, to one extent or another, necessary — because on such matters the government is literally fighting for the interests of all Americans. But more often, nationalism, or populism, simply becomes an abracadabra word for justifying statism.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of trade. President Trump shares with President Obama the idea that nations compete with each other economically. They don’t. Businesses compete with each other. If China was leveled by a massive earthquake, it would boost our “competiveness,” but it would devastate our economy. Obama wanted to pour billions into everything from schools to solar panels on the grounds that we needed to beat China. Tom Friedman wanted America to be “China for a Day” because he was sure technocrats in Washington were smarter than the market and that they could fix our problems. This thinking was cockeyed when Obama peddled it, and it’s no less cockeyed when Trump is. It’s all a conspiracy against the people.
Various & Sundry
I’ll be in Knoxville this Tuesday for a speech at the University of Tennessee. Come on out if you can.
The latest Remnant podcast with Andy McCarthy (!) is out. It was a grand time.
Also, the book-tour stuff is coming into focus, and you should check out JonahGoldberg.com for more updates.
I can tell you that there will be public events in San Francisco, L.A., Dallas, Austin, and New York — and a bunch of other cities are also in the works.
And I’ll be at The Weekly Standard Summit in May. I think we’re gonna do an “All-Star” panel from there. Should be fun.
Canine Update: The most eventful thing in dogworld this week happened last weekend. The Fair Jessica was taking the beasts on one of her extended jaunts along the Potomac. Zoë and Pippa discovered something interesting along the shoreline at the beginning of the adventure. Jess called them back, and Pippa obeyed readily, no doubt thinking that there might be a tennis ball involved. But Zoë was more reluctant, having the same attitude toward tennis balls that the Cimmerian god Crom has toward mortals.
As is usually the case, the only way to get Zoë to come back when she is investigating something is to just leave her behind — she eventually panics over her abandonment and comes running. An hour or so later, on the way home, Zoë went back to the mysterious spot of mystery. Jess and Pippa kept going. But Zoë took a very long time to come back. When she finally materialized, she was carrying pretty much an entire deer spinal column, with a good chuck of the rib cage attached for good measure. No doubt she planned to chew on this treasure for the rest of FY 2018, and maybe the first quarter of 2019. Zoë knew that Jess would be less than thrilled, and so she refused to get close to her for a very long time. But having been through these kinds of gruesome games with the Dingo many times before, Jess knew the one thing she couldn’t do was make a big deal about it. So she just ignored the beast for big chunk of the walk.
Eventually, Jess theorizes, Zoë decided she didn’t like the taste but still wanted credit for this amazing find, so she came up to Jess to show it off. Jess grabbed a leaf as a “germ/bacteria shield” and tried to pry it from her. Zoë, of course, got proprietary — but she eventually let Jess have it. Jess then threw it in the canal along the towpath. This was interpreted by Pippa as “Stick!!!!!” and she ran after it. But it sank to the bottom. All were dejected.
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.