Thursday, December 27, 2007

Anti-globalization Gibberish?

EDWARD GLAESER on Bad Samaritans;

Ha-Joon Chang's "Bad Samaritans" (Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $26.95) is a lively addition to the protectionist side of the debate. Readers who believe in free trade will not find much in Mr. Chang that challenges that belief, but the book is well written and far more serious than most anti-globalization gibberish.

Mr. Chang's main charge is that free trade advocates from wealthy countries are hypocrites, because the history of America and the United Kingdom is full of protectionism. Mr. Chang alleges, with scant evidence, that the two nations grew great because of these tariff barriers. First world economists have reaped the benefits of protection, he suggests, but are now trying to deprive the world's poor of the wonders of tariffs.

Mr. Chang also takes aim at other free market policies such as privatization and fiscal prudence. Again he argues that since rich countries have public ownership and deficits, it is rank hypocrisy for us to try to forbid them to the poor. An alternative view is that economists shouldn't be required to endorse the worst policies of their own countries.

While it is easy to quibble with some of Mr. Chang's more bizarre statements about American political history, such as his claim that "slavery was not as divisive an issue in antebellum politics as most of today believe it to have been," he is certainly correct that America was quite protectionist during the 19th and early 20th centuries. First Alexander Hamilton, then the Whigs, and finally the G.O.P. all fought for tariffs. While Abraham Lincoln did much to make men free, his support for tariffs made him less of an advocate of free markets.

The most curious thing about Mr. Chang's retelling of American history is his suggestion that there is anything secret about this history of American protectionism. The Tariff of Abominations and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff are both mainstays of high school history classes; Honest Abe's affinity for tariffs even appears in popular movies about the Great Emancipator.

Ha-Joon Chang interview on Bloomberg

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