The New Demon

In his new book, ominously titled The Great Betrayal, Patrick Buchanan seeks to show that the economic difficulties and anxieties faced by working Americans today, including large parts of the middle class, are the result of free trade and the pressures of open competition in the world economy. More broadly, Mr. Buchanan argues that the progressive elimination of tariffs and other barriers to foreign trade during the post-World War II era is the chief force responsible for a great many of our nation’s economic and social ills. The villains in his story—his book is as much about the politics of blame as the economics of practical solutions—are the “transnational elites” and the politicians who do their bidding. His answer is protectionism, particularly in the form of new tariffs on goods produced by low-paid foreign labor.

Mr. Buchanan’s argument is worth attention not only for its own claims but because in one form or another, albeit usually without any of his specific protectionist proposals, opposition to free trade is shared in the United States by at least some prominent politicians in both parties as well as by many labor leaders and businessmen. Last November Congress balked at giving President Clinton the “fast-track” authority he had requested to negotiate a new round of multilateral reductions in tariffs and other impediments to the free flow of goods across national borders. Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephart, who has long expressed reservations about free trade, opposed the President in this debate, and enough Republican congressmen likewise rejected their own party’s leaders (who supported the fast-track legislation) that Mr. Clinton had to withdraw his request before it came to an up-or-down vote.

In the same vein Ross Perot is far from the only politician, or the only businessman, to make opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement into a rallying cry for opposition to free trade more generally. Mr. Buchanan also approvingly quotes both the longtime AFL-CIO president George Meany and his current successor, John Sweeney, on the unfair competition that amounts to “a stacked deck, stacked against the American worker.”

As we shall see, Mr. Buchanan’s argument is, at bottom, about more than free trade. Although he goes to great lengths to portray it as an attack on big government, his real complaint is against laissez-faire free enterprise, and his proposals for higher tariffs and other new trade barriers are openly interventionist. And while, not surprisingly, he seizes opportunities to portray Democrats (including Mr. Clinton) as at fault, he is also forthright in naming Republicans whom he sees as defenders of the free trade disease that is sapping America’s strength.

Wholly apart from whether free trade is actually at their root, the problems that Mr. Buchanan is concerned about are certainly real enough. Over the past quarter-century most Americans’ wages have failed to keep up with inflation, and most families’ incomes have remained stagnant despite the increase in two-earner households. The average full-time worker in US business …

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