Political Theory's Pet Rock


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.