They are also part of today’s global clash of values—not the value war between Islamists and the West, but an even more fundamental one: the clash between individualism and various forms of paternalism.
According to individualists, the legitimate aim of government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of individuals. In modern times, governments have carried out their functions, for good or ill, in defined geographical locations, that is, in countries or nation-states. Countries, then, have been the battlegrounds on which advocates of individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law have contended with protectionist enemies.
But in the modern world, the lives, liberty, and property of individuals have always had some degree of international impact. And at least since Adam Smith, many governments have recognized the economic advantages of allowing free exchanges between their citizens and the citizens of other countries. Ultimately, though, individualists believe that (as with domestic trade) the justification for allowing international trade is a moral one; allowing citizens the freedom to trade internationally is merely a recognition of their right to dispose of their own property as they see fit. Protectionists, on the other hand, want governments to pursue policies that limit both their citizens’ economic prosperity and their personal autonomy, usually in the name of some alleged national or collective interest, however much their policies may harm real flesh-and-blood individuals.
The individualist case for free trade was strengthened greatly by the disastrous consequences of protectionism and nationalism during the first half of the twentieth century. Then too, the growing theoretical appreciation that trade is not a zero-sum game yielded an understanding that wars over exclusive markets and control over colonies made no economic sense, to say nothing of political sense.
Individuals have rights to their own lives, liberty, and property, and governments should limit themselves to protecting these rights.
Today, the distinction between what is domestic and what is international is becoming elusive, for the emergence of relatively free-market Asian countries and the fall of communism have accelerated international economic integration. Today, the production processes, ownership, and capital investment of an operation may be spread out worldwide. For example, Americans may own major shares in a Japanese-headquartered company. That company may contract with an enterprise in some third country to produce parts that are sent to a firm in a fourth country, where they are assembled into larger components that in turn are sent to American factories for inclusion in finished products that are then exported around the world. What are these products? American? Japanese? Who is exporting what? You’d be hard pressed today to find any product that is truly “Made in the USA.” But the results are more products, better deals for consumers, and prosperity for all involved.
Historically, economic freedom allowed entrepreneurs within countries to create goods and services that made them rich while enriching their customers. But being located in a single country also made such entrepreneurs the targets of government tax collectors, regulators, and envious others who used the state to steal from their betters or stifle bet- ter competitors. Politically, these battles were between interest groups, but philosophically they were battles between the morality and justice of individual liberty and the immorality and injustice of coercion.
Today, international economic integration is moving that moral battle to a broader arena. Elites in advanced countries with failing economic policies—especially in Europe—fear new and efficient competitors. They understand that global competition means the national protectionist policies of the past won’t work today. Therefore, they seek to use international organizations and agreements to globalize the regulations that redistribute and kill wealth in their own countries. Paternalist American elites are often happy to cooperate, for philosophically they have more in common with these anti-freedom foreigners than with their fellow Americans.
Fortunately, another global cadre has emerged in past decades to counter the international protectionist elites. It is a cadre that shares the beliefs of America’s Founders—and of moral people everywhere—that individuals have rights to their own lives, liberty, and property, and governments should limit themselves to protecting these rights. Members of this freedom cadre work to promote their principles in their own countries but want the principles to be the basis of an international order. Many of these advocates, scholars, and think-tank policy entrepreneurs are not Americans, but they have much more in common with freedom-loving Americans than freedom-loving Americans have with their own paternalist rulers or with fellow citizens of the whining, I’m-a-victim-help-me sort. From time to time, we will profile these international freedom fighters in the pages of The New Individualist.
Immigration is another aspect of economic integration or globalization. Travel is not now as expensive and dangerous as it was in the past, and the communications revolution means that immigrants need not lose touch with the country from which they came. That’s good from a personal perspective, for immigrants can keep in touch with family and friends in the old country. But it can be bad if it means that immigrants tend to cling to the bad ideas and values responsible for the poverty, violence, and hatred in the dysfunctional societies of their homelands. Of course, immigrants face cultural dangers from American voices as well as from foreign ones. Most immigrants to America are people of initiative who come here seeking economic opportunities, personal liberty, and freedom from arbitrary government. Once here, though, these self-starters face seduction by American paternalists who would subject them again to the immorality that produced the conditions they are fleeing.
In sum, the battle of ideas and culture has truly gone global, not just alongside but as part of the worldwide movement of goods and services, production, capital, and people. Americans who want to preserve free markets and free minds at home must understand that their struggle cannot be fought behind walls of economic or ideological protectionism. It must be part of the struggle to expand freedom abroad.