Truth In Labeling


Have you seen any political bumper stickers recently? Of course you have: It’s an election year, and candidates have handed out bumper stickers the way they’ve passed out promises.

That’s why a column in the April 23, 2008 Wall Street Journal made me sit up straight. Ohio senator Sherrod Brown condemned “bumper sticker politics.”

Oh, please. Politicians like Brown invented “bumper sticker politics.” Only they can stop it–perhaps by pledging never again to pollute the hind quarters of anybody’s vehicle with their simple-minded sloganeering.

Yet Brown wasn’t complaining about what people put on their bumpers. Instead, he was grousing about a label that a lot of people slap on his own brand of politics. The headline above his article was a plea: “Don’t Call Me a Protectionist.”

That makes about as much sense as saying, “Don’t Call Adam Smith a Capitalist.”

Senator Brown is the walking definition of a protectionist. They could place a picture of him next to the word in the dictionary. He may not like to be called one–but that’s what he is, as any review of his career reveals.

Last fall, Brown voted against the Peru Free Trade Agreement, even though a bipartisan majority in a Democrat-controlled Congress favored it.

Brown also opposed CAFTA, NAFTA, and bilateral pacts with Australia, Chile, Morocco, and Singapore. He even voted against the Uruguay round of world trade talks, which lowered tariffs all over the planet. Bipartisan majorities approved all of those, too, and they were negotiated by both Democrat and Republican administrations.

Brown is such a protectionist that he has even written a book called “The Myths of Free Trade.”

But let’s give the guy a hearing. “Our country deserves a real debate on trade, not a debate where labeling one side protectionist is game, set, and match,” wrote Brown.

I’m all for that. Let’s have a real debate. And as in any real debate, let’s begin by defining our terms.

What’s a protectionist? It’s a person who believes that governments should use tariffs–i.e., taxes on certain goods or services–to protect special interest groups from competition. These special interest groups usually are inefficient and their inefficiencies limit choices and raise prices for ordinary consumers.

For some reason, “protectionism” never protects the pocket books of everyday people. At a time of rising food prices, this is counterproductive. There are many causes and many potential solutions to the current crisis over the cost of food, but one thing is for certain: Protectionism makes things worse.

Brown sidesteps this important issue and instead spends much of his article wringing his hands over the trade deficit. “One country’s deficit is another country’s surplus,” he writes.

This statement betrays an astonishing ignorance of how markets work. For starters, it’s an example of zero-sum thinking that says every economic transaction must have a winner and a loser.

That’s silly. When you buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store, you don’t suffer from a “trade deficit” with the store. Instead, you’ve engaged in a mutually beneficial deal–a win-win, you might say.

The same is true with international trade. That’s why pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea are worthwhile. Both of them would open a foreign market to American-made products, matching eager buyers with willing sellers. But Brown isn’t for those, either.

Just don’t call him a protectionist!

It drives me crazy when politicians say they don’t like labels. These are the same people who insist on having ballots identify them as “Democrats” or “Republicans.”

Labels can serve useful purposes, on everything from ballots to bottles of medicine. They’re dangerous only when they’re misleading or wrong.

The fact is that Brown and the other protectionists in Washington never have seen a free trade deal that they can support. If they don’t want to be called protectionists, then perhaps we can come up with another name for what they are. Here are a few ideas: economic isolationists, consumer-choice restrictionists, and price-tag inflationists.

I suspect that Americans will reject these labels–not because they’re inaccurate, but because they represent a worldview that contradicts the policies that have made the United States so prosperous.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

Leave a Reply