On not heeding the advice and words of Abraham Lincoln

>> Wednesday, March 01, 2017

I believe strongly in free trade, but it also has to be fair trade. It has been a long time since we had fair trade. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that the "abandonment of the protective policy by the American government will produce want and ruin among our people." Lincoln was right, and it is time we heeded his advice and his words.
- Donald J. Trump, Address before Congress,
February 28th, 2017.

This was one of the things that stuck out at me when I was listening to Trump's thing in front of Congress the other night, and I was trying to figure it out so I looked it up this morning when I had a chance.

The quote that Trump's speechwriters located is from a speech Abraham Lincoln gave when he was entering Congress in 1847, in which Lincoln made an argument against the free trade theories Trump professes to believe strongly in, in favor of protective tariffs, which were an important part of the American economy and a standard plank of Whig/Republican political platforms from around the end of the War of 1812 until the post-World War II era.  Lincoln's full line, coming as the summation of an economic argument he just made using a number of illustrative hypothetical scenarios, goes:

Believing that these propositions, and the [conclusions] I draw from them can not be successfully controverted, I, for the present, assume their correctness, and proceed to try to show, that the abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government, must result in the increase of both useless labour, and idleness; and so, in pro[por]tion, must produce want and ruin among our people.

If you're not sure what Lincoln meant by "useless labor" and you're not ready to go read his entire 1847 speech, here's his explanation from earlier in the same address:

Before proceeding however, it may be as well to give a specimen of what I conceive to be useless labour. I say, then, that all carrying, & incidents of carrying, of articles from the place of their production, to a distant place for consumption, which articles could be produced of as good quality, in sufficient quantity, and with as little labour, at the place of consumption, as at the place carried from, is useless labour. 

I.e., shipping and freight are useless labor unless absolutely inescapably necessary, so take that, trucking industry!

Much of 19th Century American politics is made up of tensions between competing interests that don't exactly exist in the same way anymore, so that the politicians and parties of those interests don't map especially well onto modern politics.  We insist on trying, however, because American political culture is based very much on maintaining a mythology of continuity and union; because we haven't updated or revised our Constitution beyond doubling its length with "Amendments" (which, in turn, we never get around to updating or revising or amending unless you count the experiment with Prohibition), we oblige ourselves to pretending that James Madison or even Thaddeus Stevens would have understood and thought about issues in much the same way we do, and used the words and terms of art of their respective eras to mean the same things we mean in ours.

Teachers introducing students to 19th Century history may try to simplify debates and factions by saying that 19th Century Democrats were basically Republicans and 19th Century Republicans were basically Democrats, but this is basically wrong.  Nineteenth Century Republicans were anti-Free Trade, pro-free white labor, all over the place on the problem of race relations, favored government spending for infrastructure projects--a platform that has pieces in modern Democratic politics, modern Republican politics, and planks that have rotted away into irrelevancy and dumped in a forgotten pile out in the woods somewhere.

In particular, the Whigish protectionism that the Republicans adopted and promoted for almost a century is a platform that was once integral to Republicanism but faded into obscurity for almost half a century until Trump revived it.

This is where I confess my own lack of comfort and familiarity with economic theories.  I have some lay knowledge--I'm not wholly ignorant--but I also feel awkward trying to explain why Mercantilism doesn't work much beyond a kind of "just-so" explanation ("Obviously it doesn't work because practically every country has abandoned it as an economic model and the only people still harping about it appear to be on-the-fringe goldbug cranks, right?").

But it does seem to me fairly self-evident that Lincoln's hand-waving about the effects of tariffs in his 1847 speech is just that, handwaving: I can't see why the producer and merchant will take one cent losses on a three cent tariff instead of passing the whole three lost cents on to the purchaser, perhaps even adding an extra two cents to the price to make it a nice round nickel they can figure out how to split between them, telling the customer that the price hike is, "Oh, you know, there's a tariff now."  Just because Lincoln was a smart man doesn't mean he was right about everything.

Whig economic theory, as best I can make out, is a mix of strong federalism and strong regionalism, which seems a bit strange and contrary until you go back and properly imagine the United States as it was a hundred-fifty years ago, as a lot of mostly self-sufficient villages, towns, and occasional cities, nothing much bigger population-wise than on the county level, occasionally having to engage in interstate commerce to get access to some crop or mineral resource that was desirable but couldn't be locally acquired.  In short, a society that can only be annoyingly described as pre-postmodern... or, well, modern, except that "modern" implies "current contemporary" when we're talking about a particular kind of post-Revolution, pre-World War II largely rural, largely light-industrial/heavy agrarian society.

Words are challenging.  Sorry.  (Maybe the Wikipedia links I went back and added to the previous paragraph help?  Or don't?  Again, sorry.)

The point being that even if you're charitable towards Whig economic theory (and this is what we're talking about, Lincoln in this context being a self-described "Henry Clay Whig"), it's a system that assumes, is intended for, and applies to a kind of culture that hasn't really existed in the United States for... well, approximately a century, actually, which is one reason we see the last vestiges of this kind of economic thinking exacerbate the Great Depression when implemented by Herbert Hoover (e.g. the passing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, speaking of tariffs being hurtful, not helpful, to economies).  Even if you can show that Lincoln's economic theories were the right ideas for the America of 1847, I think it's practically impossible to make the case they were the right ideas for the America of 1930, a markedly different country.

What's interesting and disheartening, to come back to Trump's Congressional address, is that Trump's speechwriters offer Lincoln's line as a bit of historical support, but deprive it of the context necessary to understand what he was really talking about and actually meant.  Although Lincoln didn't refer to what we now call "free trade" in those terms, he was (in the parlance of our era) opposed to it; and one might think from Trump's phrasing that when Lincoln said "protective policy," he was referring in a very general way to policies that protect (workers, farmers, Americans, whomever), instead of using a contemporary and specific synonym for protective tariffs.

My assumption is that the context was removed deliberately, given that the Trump Administration has expressed support for tariffs (an enthusiasm apparently not shared by Congressional Republicans), though it's also very possible that the context was removed simply because context is complicated and the point of quoting Lincoln was to make a kind of appeal to authority in the American tradition I mentioned previously, where we cite our historic founders to promote a sense of linear continuity in our political traditions; besides, quoting Abraham Lincoln always sounds great because most Americans tend to agree that he was one of our bestest Presidents (and he was) if not the best (and he was probably that, too).  And with that point, it seems worth mentioning that maybe the context was stripped accidentally or wasn't understood by the speechwriter, who maybe was just looking for a good line from a beloved Republican about the government looking out for the little guy.  (In that regard, too, it seems likely to me that Trump had no idea what Lincoln was saying whether or not his speechwriter understood it, Trump's support for tariffs notwithstanding.)

Lincoln was explicitly promoting tariffs.  Tariffs are explicitly an obstacle to free trade.  This isn't an argument for the one against the other, though tariffs have a history of working out badly (the history of free trade, perhaps, is still being written and one concedes that there may well be a split verdict on the matter).  The point is perhaps less an argument than it is an observation that Trump's sentence is cognitively dissonant, that regardless of your feelings about what constitutes "fair trade," you can't really "believe strongly in free trade" while saying Lincoln was right about the "protective policy" of the 19th Century.  It's explicitly an incoherent thought.

One which doesn't seem likely to be called out by the national press and punditry, who mostly seem enthused that Trump made a public appearance in which he didn't grouse about media conspiracies, complain about fraudulent votes, say anything that was too obviously bigoted (though he did make a point of checking off Black History Month and recent acts of violent antisemitism at the beginning of his address so he wouldn't have to come back and say anything substantial about racial and religious prejudice), or refer to any fictional terrorist attacks.  Some have been pointing out that some of his comments about jobs and crime statistics are misleading-at-best-lies-at-worst, but the common reaction has been that he appeared to be "presidential," which apparently no longer means having the rhetorical skills of a Roosevelt (either one) or an Obama, or the earnestness of a Washington or an Eisenhower, but now is simply the quality of being able to read a teleprompter with ninety percent accuracy.

And so my two cents' contribution, such as it is.


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