Greetings from Miami, Florida, where I’m attending the final day of the third annual National Conservatism conference. (I spoke on Sunday.) I’ll be posting soon about my general impressions of this event, and the broader effort it represents to develop a new school of right-of-center policies and politics. But since today’s early afternoon sessions aren’t my speed, I’m back in the (cavernous!) hotel room because I thought folks would be interested in seeing a lightly edited version of the remarks I delivered.
The subject – the often weird and arguably counterproductive views long held by most U.S. leaders, along with the national policy and business establishments, about the different priorities deserved by promoting economic competition at home, and economic competition from abroad. In addition, I should note that the conference organizers plan to post videos of this and other presentations very soon, and I’ll send out an alert when it’s up. For more background, see this article in the journal American Affairs from 2019, when I first made versions of the following observations and arguments:
There seems to be broad agreement at this conference that the U.S. economy should undergo some kind of transformation from one that’s extremely open to the world economy – to all of its opportunities and benefits as well as all of its risks and dangers – to one that’s less open (because those risks and dangers don’t seem to have been accounted for adequately).
I’m sure that there’s also broad agreement that a major obstacle stands in the way – that very considerable degree of recent and current openness, which becomes clear from examining data like the strong rise of trade (both exports and imports) as a share of the nation’s economic output, the similarly strong rise of two way both outgoing and incoming investment, and the amount of U.S. net debt held by foeign lenders. It’s also clear from what we’ve been learning lately about how dependent the nation has become on other countries for lots of goods that are crucial economically and militarily and healthcare-wise.
Almost completely overlooked though is another major obstacle – an apparent belief that’s powerfully fueled all that openness, and helped create the costs and vulnerabilities that have been neglected for o long. It’s the apparent belief that foreign competition is better for the economy than domestic competition.
I say “apparent” because this view isn’t often voiced. But something like it must be broadly accepted, especially by those who have been making national economic policy. Because for decades, until very recently (the year 1980 is a good starting point) U.S. leaders have worked especially hard to open the American economy wide to foreign competition (through numerous international trade agreements) while simultaneously permitting levels of domestic competition to fall quite significantly in a great many industries.
And it’s difficult to understand how a much more self-reliant American System can be created if the prioritization of foreign over domestic competition isn’t reversed. That is, if there’s a strong consensus – as there seems to be – that vigorous competition is needed to maximize the benefits of capitalism (notably, to spur technological progress, better product quality, more affordability, greater choice of stuff to buy), then the emphasis should be placed on boosting domestic, rather than foreign, competition.
For those seeking to limit the U.S. economy’s exposure to the global economy, the rationale for stressing an increase in foreign competition seems to have two sources that are two sides of the same coin – at least as best as I can figure out, since again, the case for actively preferring it is seldom made explicitly. The first is that since competition is good, the more the merrier. Therefore boosting foreign competition is an obvious way to get more competition.
The second reason for emphasizing foreign competition is that it’s simply not possible to generate needed levels of competition without foreign competition.
But regarding the first rationale – just how much more competition does foreign competition create for the U.S.? If we’re a fourth of global output, does that mean that foreign competition can triple the level of competition? Or twice as much, or 72 percent more, or whatever? Maybe. What I can say confidently, though, isthat no one has even asked that question, let alone answered it. But the assumption seems dubious given that much the three-fourths of that global economy outside the U.S. is less advanced than we are, not more.
And as for foreign competition filling some unavoidable domestic competition gap – that may be true for many other countries. But it’s far from true for the United States. After all, we have advanced technology. We have manufacturing. We have services. We have energy and minerals. We have agriculture. We still have dynamic, innovation-fostering economic and social systems. .In other words, to borrow from that Michael Jackson song, “We are the world.” We have satisfactory supplies of petty muc every type of product and service that the rest of the world boasts all together.
That is, we have a matchless degree of self-sufficiency and capacity for self-sufficiency – despite having spent much of the last half-century or more trying our best to squander this priceless advantage. We don’t have tropical fruit. Or coffee. Or chocolate. But I think we can figure those challenges out.
It’s true of course that the transition toward a less globalized American economy isn’t a short-term proposition. And it probably will never result in 100 percent self-sufficiency – at least not in the foreseeable future.
For example, precisely because we’ve permitted so many major gaps to emerge in our productive economy, we face enough alarming shortages to require some temporary degree of cooperation with other countries before they’re filled. Semiconductor manufacturing is a prime example. In turn, these shortfalls also extend to the professional workforces needed to reestablish domestic production. So some flexibility on immigration and visa policy will be needed, too – at least until we get our own science and technology workforce back up to speed.
And maybe the best de-globalized American economy shouldn’t even aim to hermetically seal the economy, or even close. After all, recognizing that foreign competition isn’t superior to domestic competition by no means requires dismissing the former as totally worthless. Similarly, the prioritizing of domestic competition doesn’t mean that all corporate concentration at home should be broken up.
Instead, what’s important for fostering a less globalized economy is realizing that it’s not necessarily, much less mainly, foreign competition that’s needed for economic success. It’s competition, period. And since the United States is eminently capable of supplying so many of its economic needs and wants on its own, without many of the downsides of foreign competition, why not reorient our national economic strategy to recognize the proper relationship between trade and competition policy, view them through different lenses, and base them on different default positions?
So before even considering new international trade agreements, Washington should ask whether the added increment of foreign competition and its expected benefits are worth the national security costs, the economic costs, and the social pathologies produced by the latter?
And for industries that do need a competitive kick in the pants, let’s first ask if that kick can come from some new domestic anti-trust-type action.
Before approving more mergers and acquisitions at home, Washington could ask if the firms involved could realize the greater scale economies and other gains they’re seeking by limiting their foreign competition.
If de-globalizing the American economy is the name of the game, then recognizing and overcoming the usually implicit but broad basis in favor of foreign over domestic competition looms not just as an important step. It will be an essential step.