Affordable Care Act, big government, budget cuts, Congress, conservatives, discretionary spending, entitlement spending, healthcare, Im-Politic, industrial policy, Mick Mulvaney, Obamacare, Republicans, Trade, Trump, USAToday
USA Today‘s editorial yesterday on U.S. trade policy did an excellent job of stating a major objection to tariffs and other measures that interfere with international commerce – and one that understandably resonates strongly in a nation that prizes free market values, and especially among its conservatives: These trade curbs fuel Big Government, thereby preventing the economy from achieving its full potential, and harming the nation’s society and culture as well as the economy by sapping the attractiveness of individual initiative.
The essay also understandably focused on a development that looks like a poster child for trade-fostered Big Government – the process set up by the Trump administration to decide which companies will receive exemptions from recent metals tariffs, based on claims that adequate domestic substitute steel and aluminum products aren’t available.
In the words of the editorial writers:
“[T]he administration has imposed a new tax on imported metals and then put itself in a position to decide who has to pay it and who does not.
“This is Big Government at its worst — arbitrary and capricious, if not outright political, as it picks winners and losers in business. And all this is being done without any new law being passed and while a Republican Congress, which used to stand for free enterprise and limited government, remains supine.”
One obvious rejoinder is the observation that, however cumbersome the exemptions process may or may not be, Washington actually has an impressive historical record of “picking winners and losers in business.” Examples include the information technology hardware and software industries, which were practically launched with public (largely Pentagon sponsored) research and development funds, and critically nurtured by government (again, largely defense-supplied) markets; the world-class farming sector fostered by U.S. Department of Agriculture research findings; the equally world-class pharmaceutical industry aided by the National Institutes of Health; and an aviation and aerospace industry supported by the Defense Department, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and by a NASA predecessor aeronautic agency. (For an excellent summary of this historical record, see this study from the National Academies of Science.)
But there’s another vital point missed by USAToday and by conservatives who remain devoted to preserving or renewing the expansion of the existing free trade realm: If they succeed, they’re likely to see the kind of Big Government metastasis America has never experienced before. The reason? So many renumerative Americans jobs will be lost, and so much income destroyed, that political pressures for a much more generous welfare state will positively skyrocket.
Another favorite cause of newspaper editorialists like the USAToday writers and many Big Government-phobic conservatives – the return of mass immigration – will bring the same type of outcome, for many of the same reasons.
And if you think that the nation’s leaders will unite to uphold the causes of self-reliance and much smaller government, you weren’t paying attention to the recent fight over abolishing “Obamacare.” For better or worse, the national healthcare system created at the initiative of the former President remains largely in place even though its Republican opponents control the entire federal government and a huge majority of state governments because lots of these Republican politicians recognized that eliminating this latest entitlement would be political suicide.
At the same time, standard-issue conservatives aren’t the only Americans who may need to learn these lessons. Donald Trump belongs on this list, too. Interestingly, he won the presidency after running a campaign that both promised an Americans-First overhaul of trade policy and to protect the nation’s immense middle class entitlement programs – both of which clashed strongly with conservative dogma.
But his biggest first-year push as President involved going after Obamacare – well before he had achieved any of his trade policy goals, and before he even began pursuing them energetically. And he’s so far permitted his budget director, former Tea Party stalwart Mick Mulvaney, to propose numerous deep cuts in discretionary spending and even some entitlement spending that aren’t exactly middle class-friendly, either.
This set of priorities may have been unavoidable politically, reflecting Mr. Trump’s perceived need to establish some conservative bona fides with Congressional Republicans – who mainly still strongly support the party’s old orthodoxy, but whose staunch backing he would need in any impeachment proceedings.
At the same time, a fair number of those donors-friendly, offshoring-happy Congressional Republicans are retiring – largely because they recognize that Trump-ian trade and other unorthodox policies have won over the base. And although Democratic hardliners may indeed push successfully for impeachment proceedings if the party wins the House, it’s likely that, in the absence of a major smoking gun, this campaign could alienate independent voters – who are hardly gung ho to give Mr. Trump the heave-ho. Chances are they’d be even less receptive to an impeachment spectacle dominating Washington if the President distanced himself from meat-axe public spending cuts.
If this scenario unfolds, the loudest voices complaining that Trump-ian trade policies lead to Big Government could be mainstream media editorialists and pundits. But these voices would be less important than ever.