Making Protectionism Great Again


The 1760’s called, they want their economic policy back.

Am I the only one who’s a little tired of both major party platforms scraping the bottom of the barrel for economic theories that’ve been disproven since before we were born?

I’m a libertarian. A deep, cynical, state-is-obsolete libertarian who finds his views overlapping heavily with conservative thought and Republican politics. That’s why it irks me that this election cycle has made abundantly clear that there is no home for hands-off economics in the major party system.

From the days of Saint Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has been billing itself as the bastion of laissez faire fiscal restraint. If you let the market correct itself, the employers create jobs and everyone prospers. Fair.

But what is this year’s Republican standard bearer saying about the economy? Why, he’s promising to restrict international trade, of course. Donald J. Trump’s entire economic appeal from the early pre-primary days has been nothing but recycled Mercantilism.

Mercantilism is an economic theory fresh from the colonial era in which governments restrict international trade in order to bolster domestic manufacturing at all costs. Imports bad. Exports good. The only problem with this model is that, when everyone does it, there’s no one left to trade with.

So, in conventional Eighteenth Century wisdom, the crown heads of Europe proceeded to send armies across the seven seas to impose civilization on the barbarians while conveniently protecting their own economic interests.

Sound familiar?

Mercantilism, with its built in incentives to maintain colonial empires through war and trade restrictions, laid the foundation of so much of the disaster that is modern post-colonial geopolitics. The atrocities borne of policies justified by its good intentions are far from over.

This is why, and rightly so, the modern free market theory is so famously attributed to a name you may have heard in conservative circles: Adam Smith.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is a signature classic of anti-statist thought. He posited the invisible hand theory of the market, whereby people will naturally negotiate and arrange the most beneficial economic decisions not by force, but by their own free will. The Wealth of Nations led virtually to the end of Mercantilism in Europe.

But alas, leave it to shallow political catch phrases to win the hearts of public opinion

Fast forward a few decades into America’s new-found liberty to experiment in its own economic ideas.

Frederic Bastiat, another name you’ll hear all over the Republican intellectual community, had something to say about American protectionism. Most famous for writing the Law, this French libertarian also expressed some optimism in America’s future, but with two reservations.

  1. Slavery
  2. Protective tariffs


Slavery and tariffs were, in the humble opinion of this libertarian icon, the two great threats to the future of American liberty. As an unbiased foreign observer, he had no qualms including one policy favored by the south and one favored by the north, though both violated (to admittedly very different degrees) the universal law of human freedom.

Bastiat warned that we could be free if we figured out a resolution to these two problems. We fixed slavery, but we’re still sort of working on the protectionism thing.
So when a Republican free market wannabe tells you they want government out of the economy, just ask them whether they really mean that, or if that just applies when it’s politically convenient like Mr. Trump seems to think.

Luke is an attorney, campaign consultant, lobbyist, and historian with a passion for liberty and a nerdy sense of humor.

He holds a Jurisdoctorate Degree in law and a Bachelors degree in communications.


  1. People suppose government can impose order. It can – sort of, for a while – but order might not be what ANYONE wants insofar as allowing (all) people to feed, shelter, clothe and entertain each other as well as they can/could.

    Besides that, there’s YOUR order, THEIR order, and MY order. They’re all repressive. Freedom allows us to work things out. Government prevents that.

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