Feature:Opinion

That funny old dogma — Ian Fletcher’s ode to mercantilism

College kids have an excuse for being indignant about free trade. They’re largely ignorant–young idealists who’re still learning about the real world. They don’t realize, for example, that most “sweatshop” jobs in Central America pay more than prevailing wages in those countries. And, while these jobs are tough, they are less horrible than subsistence agriculture. In other words, third-worlders actually want sweatshop jobs. The alternatives may be prostitution, starvation or crime.

But I don’t think folks like Ian Fletcher have as good an excuse for their opposition to free trade. I realize mercantilism, that funny old dogma, can be tempting for people–particularly if you’re a UAW lobbyist, or your radio’s stuck on The Lou Dobbs Show. But Fletcher’s recent article in the Daily Caller isn’t so much a defense of mercantilism as a guerrilla assault on free trade launched from the thorny bushes of fallacy. Let me explain.

Fletcher’s “critique” employs three strategies that, when analyzed, can easily be exposed as Logic 101 no-nos. Consider:

Straw Man — Come up with five or six caricatures of free traders and their arguments, then beat up on those caricatures. But don’t use actual citations, because you won’t find any. Here’s one example of Fletcher’s supposed free trade argument: “Anyone who doesn’t believe this is stupid. Smart people not only understand that free markets are best, they like free markets, because free markets mean opportunities to get rich.” (Italics Fletcher’s.)

Wow. Okay, the first thing you should do when arguing against a position is to find people who actually making the claim you’re attacking. I don’t know anyone who makes such puerile assertions, much less gets get paid to. And while free markets do mean opportunities for people to benefit, free-traders really like the fact that borderless exchange offers opportunities for the world’s poorest people to survive and thrive.

Ad Hominem — If you can’t dissect the argument, attack the man: “Their fundamentalist sect is the old Ayn Rand cult, whose members call themselves ‘objectivists.’” The implication is that those who understand free trade are somehow dogmatic or cultists. We don’t reflect on our advocacy of open exchange, we follow it blindly. Like the tactics used by the Soros left, Fletcher’s shtick is not so much to argue at all, but to use innuendo and call names. Even the title, “Fakeonomics,” is meant to suggest free-trade advocates are either lying or being disingenuous. Attacking people reveals contempt, not substance.

Sans Evidence — Economics is an empirical science in most respects. So why doesn’t Ian Fletcher point to any evidence to support his claims? I suspect one of two reasons: either he is a lazy researcher who can’t be bothered with evidence, or he is being intellectually dishonest. Neither reflects well on him or his organization. (A third hypothesis is that he is simply using the platform to hock his book on protectionism, which he mentions both in the body and in the tagline. His book is published by a special interest group.)

Anyway, so much for rational discourse on free trade in “Economics vs. Fakeonomics.” I’ll try to do a little better in my response to Fletcher.

Despite all the fallacies and lack of supporting evidence, let’s be charitable to Mr. Fletcher’s position. With the following, I’ll directly address what Fletcher considers to be the “problems” of free trade.