Political Theory's Pet Rock

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Remember Amitai Etzioni? In the 90s, he enjoyed a kind of faddish scholarly rockstardom, probably owing in large part to his Kissingerian baritone, which had a way of giving a patina of profundity to event the most banal sentiment. Despite a spate of recent books, he seemed to have faded from the limelight a bit, but I see he's now blogging away over at TPMCafe, inexplicably devoting his eminent pixels to a vintage (the less kind might say obsolete) "race to the bottom" style argument for "fair trade" that could've been penned by a half-bright college sophomore a decade ago. Which isn't that surprising, since he then directs his readers to his 1988 tome The Moral Dimension for "more discussion."

Now, it's not necessarily a mistake to rely on an old source in economics—plenty of theory developed decades or centuries ago contains basically sound insights—but it's telling here, insofar as Etzioni is basically making an empirical claim about what the effects of freer trade have been, and gives no sign of having looked out the window since '88 to see how his argument holds up. Which may explain how he can believe that more tarrifs are the solution in an era when even trade skeptics like Chuck Schumer and Paul Craig Roberts have to caveat their carping with the concession that "Old-fashioned protectionist measures are not the answer." No such qualifications from Etzioni, whose let-them-eat-cake solution is to burden countries that (presumably out of sheer malice toward their own populations) don't insist on competing at first-world wage levels with developing world infrastructure and education, then use tariff proceeds to offer developing world workers a handout in place of the burgeoning industries we've undermined.

And, on the domestic side, not even the pretense of nuance in his characterization of the effects of trade on "workers," treated as a monolith. Like every other economic change—new technology, changing demand patterns, whatever—there are people who do better and people who do worse, but increased trade has unambiguous net benefits—to the tune of about a trillion dollars annually over the past half century, by one estimate. If Etzioni wants to buffet the impact for the short-term losers, he should just be talking about what we can do on that front for dislocations flowing from economic change of any kind—something that doesn't require dicking about with international trade flows and punishing people abroad for being "unfairly" poor.

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  1. I recently took a course discussing some of the influential economists of the past, and I was struck by just how willfully ignorant Marx was as an economist.

    He may have been a reasonably good demagogue, but I have a hard time crediting him with being any sort of a competent economist.

    This Etzioni character strikes me as being more of the same — emotion-laden demagoguery (though not with Karl Marx’s skill or passion), with a willful dependence on concepts that have been thoroughly debunked by both events and current economic theory.

  2. You hit the nail on the head with “unfairly poor.” Fundamental to every leftist political project is the idea that somehow the poor are poor because the “system” isn’t fair. Well, life isn’t fair. There will always be losers, and sob-sister leftists will forever encourage them to think that the answer to their problems is to steal their way to a better life through taxation. The poor should learn to solve their problems themselves or to live with the sad fact that they can’t. I always give money to beggers, by the way. The poor can always beg.

  3. There are many, I’m sure, who think you’re preaching to the choir here. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

    It’s remarkable enough to remark on, the libertarian among us who don’t seem to understand (Please, no one say “believe in”.) free trade. …and the perils of protected industries.

    I’ve seen this as a settled issue since long before Bush the Lesser came to power*, but I think, in recent years, The War on Terror (and to a lesser extent the War on Drugs) has created an up tick in “civil libertarians” or, at least, I think libertarians have been more interested in non-economic issues.

    *If we’re gonna argue about free trade, why not go all the way and beat up Heliocentric Theory?

  4. You can’t have a “patina of profundity.”

  5. You know, Marx did have one pretty decent insight if you put things in context: Workers in factories in Victorian England did have a pretty raw deal.

  6. I’m disappointed in TPM, which up until now has been one of my favorite blogs. It’s not just that Etizoni is wrong, he’s also a bad writer, never settling for two syllables when he can use five, and with a bad habit of making assertions that clearly demand the recitation of something like a fact, but then going on to another point without supporting the argument. One can argue with an well-stated but incorrect position; with Etizoni, untangling his syntax is so exhausting there’s no energy left to address his points.

  7. I don’t know that that was any sort of an “insight,” Timothy. Any knob could have observed their working conditions and concluded that they were less than ideal.

    My point was that his observations, while they may have made for great demagoguery, did not lead to anything like coherence in his economic theories.

    To call Marx an economist is to besmirch the whole field of economics. The only things worse than his economic analyses were his policy solutions, which led inevitably to the horrors of Stalinist and Maoist totalitarianisms, from which much of the world is only now, slowly, starting to emerge.

  8. I think Timothy was being slightly sarcastic, Clean Hands. …that doesn’t always translate well in this medium.

    It’s interesting to see China starting to grapple with some of the same worker abuse problems we had back in the late 19th early 20th centuries. Let’s hope China deals with those problems better than we did. …paying people less than you promised and other forms of fraud and coercion, of course, have nothing to do with libertarianism.

    Free trade, on the other hand, seems essential to libertarianism. …at least it does to me.

  9. Ron’s right; no such thing (patina).

  10. Clean Hands: Well, obviously. It’s not hard to reach the conclusion that being a factory worker during the industrial revolution was a pretty rough go, my somewhat tongue-in-cheek point was that it isn’t demonstrably wrong. Of course, the policy prescriptions are, you’re right, completely batshit insane.

    I’ll throw Veblen in with Marx as a person who besmirches the field. Hell, De Foe and Munn too, while we’re at it. It’s arguable that three of those four would’ve thought of themselves as political philosophers or theorists of “political economy” as economics didn’t really develop on its own until nearly the start of the 20th century, even if the foundations of marginalism had been around since Ricardo.

  11. Anyone who doesn’t believe that the race to the bottom is real and now happening now is a supreme moron.

    JMJ

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