This recent posting of mine here referred to the wonders of global divisions of labour and the consequent availability of cheap goods and services that would have once been luxuries. The posting quoted an example about something as simple and evocative as exports of flowers (aaahhhhh) but of course it applies to anything: computer software, underwear, books, automobile components and furniture.
The ensuing comments were interesting (one of the reasons I like blogs with comment threads is that they give me ideas to write about). One argument, which I have heard several times, went something like this: globalisation and free trade is obviously grand in many ways and gives us all manner of goods unknown to our ancestors. However, the people who do best out of this tend to be smart people who can handle the rapid pace of change that globalisation brings. But not-so-smart folk, who are used to manual labour but not much up to anything else, will end up on the scrapheap. This is a bad thing as it erodes the social fabric, destroys established communities (such as Yorkshire mining villages, etc), and in particular, means that the sort of folk – mostly men – who used to expend their energy and pride on producing ships and material goods lose purpose in life, turn to crime, etc, etc. If they get jobs at all they tend to be worse-paid, “McJobs” which are demeaning to perform. Conclusion: globalisation has big losers as well as winners.
Superficially, this sort of argument carries a certain amount of force, but only lasts until one realises that this sort of line could be used not just to stop cheap imports from China and inflows of Polish construction site workers, but could, for example, be used to ban people in California from importing stuff from neighbouring Nevada, or ban a guy living in Paris from moving to Bordeaux because he is “stealing” a job from people who live in the French coastal town. In other words, when one realises that national borders are lines on a map, the perversity of protectionist economic arguments is manifest. Taken to its logical extreme, I am “taking” jobs from people in East London because I work in Canary Wharf but live in London’s central area of Pimlico.
The other sort of problem here is that it reminds me of how people still view work that involves physical objects, such as manufacturing, as being in some way more “real” than service-based jobs. It demonstrates the lingering Marxian view that wealth is not wealth unless you can drop it onto your foot. It is a view that also, I think, reflects a highly gloomy, if not disdainful, view of one’s fellows. Despite the difficulties involved and the wrench of closures of factories, millions of jobs have been created in countries like the United States that have replaced the old jobs, and many of those jobs are not the supposedly-terrible “McJobs” but jobs that have long-term career prospects. (Although folk that poke fun at “McJobs” tend to ignore several things, such as that such jobs are good entry-level jobs and people then move on to something else).
Readers may wonder why I am bothering to write about this, given that protectionism is pretty discredited (I have yet to meet anyone who, when sober, takes Lou Dobbs seriously). But the easy charms of protection continue to seduce lawmakers and even quite intelligent interloctors on blog comment threads. Like ivy threatening to throttle a young plant, protectionism needs to be ruthlessly cut back by argument, over and over again.