October 7, 2008


The Pros Lose to the Cons: Lou Dobbs replaces Milton Friedman as the face of economic conservatism. (Matthew Continetti, 10/13/2008, Weekly Standard)

Globalization depends on the free worldwide flow of capital, labor, and goods. Pros want to help this flow, while Cons want to shut it off. Hence the Cons' position on free trade (against), immigration (against), and international finance (who needs it?). The leaders of the Pros are President Bush and John McCain. The leaders of the Cons are Representatives Duncan Hunter of California, Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and Ron Paul of Texas.

These are not cut and dried labels. Conservatives can be anti-immigration and pro-bailout, or pro-trade and anti-immigration. But when you look carefully enough, it's fascinating how the same folks tend to line up together on global issues again and again. You also notice how passionately they argue their point of view. There were times during the bailout debate last week when National Review Online's group blog, "The Corner," resembled a rumble between the Crips and the Bloods.

The battle between the Pros and the Cons has been pronounced since 2006. Early that year the Bush administration sought to approve a deal that would have had a Dubai-owned company take over operations at major U.S. ports. This was exactly the sort of deal that you'd expect in a globalized world. Capital is supposed to cross borders with ease.

But the Dubai deal provoked a remarkable public outcry. Suddenly the federal government was "selling our ports" to foreigners. Who knew what could happen as a result? Hunter led the opposition, but the Democrats pitched in, too. A few brave souls tried to defend the global market. They cautioned that nobody was in any danger. They argued that America ought to be open to outside investment. They were totally ignored. Hunter and his allies scuttled the deal.

President Bush has continued to underestimate the power of the Cons. Soon after the Dubai ports controversy, Bush asked Congress to approve his immigration reform. America's remarkable economic performance over the last 25 years has attracted millions of immigrants. Plenty of them have entered the country illegally. Bush's reform was classic pro-globalization legislation and would have helped the American economy. It sought to stabilize the labor flow by instituting a guest-worker program and regularize the status of those immigrants who already were here.

But this was too much for plenty of House Republicans. They opposed the reform vociferously. They argued instead that the Bush administration should build a wall along America's southern border. Once again, Hunter led the opposition, and, once again, Hunter won. Bush's reform went nowhere. He failed with it again in 2007.

Two weeks ago, when Bush asked Congress to spend $700 billion buying up Wall Street's bad debts, the Cons blanched. Many of them railed against the bill as "socialism." But, contrary to popular myth, America has always had a mixed economy with elements of both the free market and interventionist government. The $700 billion, moreover, isn't going to be spent digging ditches in Nevada or bringing electricity to Appalachia. It's going to be spent buying securities that will later be sold-perhaps even at a profit.

In his excellent book, Promised Land, Crusader State, Walter McDougall identifies how these conflicting impulses--for and against America playing a global role--have twined through our history. He describes what Mr. Continetti calls "the Cons" as taking an Old Testament or Promised Land position, made up of: Exceptionalism (focus on liberty at home, avoiding entangling alliances); Unilateralism (as opposed to isolationism); The American System (Monroe Doctrine); and Expansionism (Manifest Destiny). The Pros, on the other hand, are identified with the New Testament or Crusader State position: Progressive Imperialism; Liberal Internationalism (Wilsonianism); Containment; and Global Meliorism (reforming other nations internal problems). Since the current disagreement is occuring within the Republican Party, even the interventionists tend to be unilateralist rather than transnationalist (except on trade) and nowadays you'd have to say that Containment is the isolationist rather than the internationalist position. But the framework generally seems to fit.

The problem for the Cons and their advocacy of isolationism is that, whereas on questions of foreign policy it would be possible to keep the United States more or less on the sidelines, it is not a realistic option when it comes to economic matters. Unless, of course, we're prepared to be a really spacious version of North Korea. Brave as they were in facing down the scaryb Dubai ports purchase, they're utterly unserious about the actual security threat posed by dependency on foreign oil. They were able to delay the next round of immigration amnesty, but no one has any stomach for deporting immigrants nor for physically preventing subsequent illegal immigration. And their stand against the credit crunch relief bill lasted exactly as long as it took voters to see the economic effect of not intervening.

The Cons can, of course, take some solace from their success at nipping a previous period of rapid globalization in the bud--in the 1920s-30s, after WWI had soured Americans on the rest of the world and the period of globalization that had begun in the 1870s, the GOP managed to pass our first immigration restrictions and Smoot-Hawley trade protections and the Fed both raised interest rates to tighten money and ignored its obligation to assist the banking sector, pursuing a liquidationist policy instead. Remember how well that worked out?

We aren't headed for another Great Depression, but the sad fact is that we would be if the Cons had their way.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 7, 2008 9:19 PM
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