If you asked most Progressives and most supporters of Donald Trump, they’d tell you that members of the two camps are diametric opposites. That’s why Progressives are protesting Trump’s presidency, right? But the reality is that Trump’s economic policies share fundamental assumptions with Progressivism.
An essential feature of Progressivism is to confuse voluntary trade with force. That is why, for example, Progressives generally blame producers for poverty by claiming that high-earning producers create “inequality” (which they do) and thereby harm the less-well-off (which they do not). According to Progressives, the successful trade of some is responsible for the misery of others.
To take another example, Progressives typically want to forbid someone from accepting a job—regardless of age, job skills, and personal preferences—below a certain arbitrarily defined wage. A person cannot be allowed to voluntarily choose to work a low-wage job because then the person would be “exploited.”
More broadly, socialists bluntly claims that capitalism per se is based on “exploitation.” Here’s how Socialist Worker describes it:
[A]ll working-class people are exploited. Marx argued that the ultimate source of profit, the driving force behind capitalist production, is the unpaid labor of workers. So for Marx, exploitation forms the foundation of the capitalist system. All the billions in bonuses for the Wall Street bankers, every dividend paid to the shareholders of industrial corporations, every dollar collected by capitalist landlords—all of this is the result of the uncompensated labor of working-class people.
So, goes the idea, just as slavers exploited their slaves by forcing them to work, so employers exploit their workers by offering them a job. Trade equals force. And never mind that people create capital—machines, computers, factories, and so on—by risking their own resources to build it, that successful business owners produce enormous value by creating or marketing products that people wish to buy, that people who accept a job working for others do so because they regard the rewards as superior to what they could otherwise attain, and that people who work for others often invest in businesses themselves.
Progressives treat voluntary trade as the equivalent of force—and so they seek to override the consensual planning of free individuals with the commands of government agents.
Donald Trump, too, sees trade in some respects as the equivalent of force, and he often uses the language of force to describe free-market transactions.
Consider how Trump discussed trade in his inaugural address: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
What does ravage mean? It means “to work havoc” or “do ruinous damage.” “Ravage, devastate, lay waste all refer, in their literal application, to the wholesale destruction of a countryside by an invading army (or something comparable).”
So, according to Donald Trump, when people in Mexico, Japan, or China make automobiles, computers, clothing, or other goods that Americans happily buy, that is comparable to those people storming our lands with guns and tanks and slaughtering Americans. Trade equals force.
Trump also refers to global trade as “rape.” So, to Trump, someone in another country producing and selling a product to an American is the equivalent of that foreigner raping an American. As Jonathan Hoenig points out, “Trump’s use of the term ‘rape’ in describing global trade is a horrid but telling indicator of just how he views voluntary relationships.” (Of course, Trump does not view all forms of trade as exploitative.)
Trump’s view of (some) trade as the equivalent of force is the most prominent way he is similar to Progressives (and Marxists more broadly), but he shares other similarities with them as well. Trump is also a collectivist, in that he sees jobs and companies as somehow belonging to society collectively and to the national government—rather than belonging to the producers who create them. And, like Progressives, Trump calls on government agents to forcibly interfere with the consensual arrangements of individuals. (I’ve written about Trump’s collectivist nationalism and cronyism before.)
To be sure, people working in America really are up against some unfair barriers—but those barriers are created by the United States government, not by foreign producers. True, the various trade treaties, although on net achieving freer trade, also contain cronyist provisions. But the capitalist alternative is not to cut off trade more but to free it more by unilaterally lifting border taxes. Congress pushes many companies out of America with high corporate tax rates and regulatory burdens—and Trump will deserve credit insofar as he follows up on promises to address those problems. And union laws, which enable unions to compel businesses to offer uncompetitively high wages, also have driven some manufacturers to other countries.
To a substantial degree, the decline in manufacturing jobs is due to better technology, not to foreign competition or to bad U.S. policies. As Financial Times reports, manufacturing output in the U.S. has climbed even as manufacturing employment has declined. Why? “Simply put, we are producing more with fewer people,” a Brookings fellow told the publication.
Although shifts in industries create transition problems for people working in those industries, we should no more cry about greater manufacturing efficiency than we cry about the fact that most people no longer work as farmers. The entire point of economic progress is to produce more goods and services with less human time—and free up that time for other ventures.
For Trump to blame foreign producers for America’s problems (both real and imaginary) is ludicrous and unjust. Notice how Progressives and Trump both blame scapegoats—they just pick different ones. For Progressives, “greedy exploitative capitalists” are to blame for our various ills ranging from poverty to global warming. For Trump, war-like, rapacious foreign workers trying to feed their families by selling Americans products they want to buy are to blame for our problems.
Contrary to Karl Marx, Progressives, and Donald Trump, the voluntary exchange of consenting adults is not force, trade is not rape, production is not exploitation, and blaming scapegoats will not make us great.
Trump wants to put American first. But America is Americans living under the shared ideals of liberty. Insofar as the expressions have worthy meaning, we can put America first and make America great again only by consistently protecting, not violating, the rights of individual Americans, including their rights to trade freely with others.
Image: Gage Skidmore