SLOAN | Free trade vs. national sovereignty? Or, is that a false choice?

Author: Kelly Sloan - April 11, 2018 - Updated: April 11, 2018

Kelly Sloan

Colorado’s Steamboat Institute arranged and hosted a fascinating debate at CU Boulder last Monday between Nigel Farage, the British MEP and former leader of UKIP who is touted as the architect of Brexit, and former Mexican President Vicente Fox, on the respective merits of nationalism and globalism.

Both gentlemen were impressive and handled their respective positions with the vigor and dignity one would expect, befitting their stations. Moderated by the articulate, witty, and highly intelligent Professor Robert Kaufman, the event dissected what many regard as the predominant competing worldviews emerging in western political discourse – a populist brand of nationalism that seeks to maintain national borders, sovereignty, traditions, and cultures, against a more technocratic outlook that would embrace a fading of such distinctions, replaced with a more homogenized globalism.

Fox assumed the part of the consummate internationalist, at times utopian in his outlook. His faith in international institutions was evident, and he seemed to take particular delight in praising the European Union. He often countered Farage’s populist arguments with a thinly veiled contempt for democracy; even going to far, in a subsequent debate held later in the week at the University of Maryland, as to offer rather adulatory praise of authoritarian regimes in places like China, lauding their efficiency at governing – a somewhat ironic twist for the man who quite ostentatiously presided over the first really democratically elected government in Mexico in 71 years. He certainly felt that the British people’s unease with being governed by Brussels was not so much unfounded as irrelevant.

Farage displayed a distinctly British style of populist conservatism, blending democratic impulses with a Queen-and-Country embrace of nationhood and an admiration of small-scale capitalism, the kind that favors the economy of the mum and pop establishment over the monopolistic giant corporation. The crux of his argument was that at the end of the day people wish to govern themselves, and the nation-state, as the vehicle for political loyalty, is the best instrument by which to do that.

To his great credit, Farage made clear the distinction between the “nationalism” of the type being discussed in this context – that of national loyalty and defense of sovereignty –  and the nativist jingoism that the term is often associated with.  Farage preferred, in fact, the term “nation-ism” to describe this concept of love for, and sense of duty towards, one’s national home—a concept British political philosopher Roger Scruton describes with the delightful word oikophilia. In this hyperbolic age of ours, distinctions are important.

Among the forum’s most interesting elements were the items upon which both men found agreement. Fox, for instance, conceded that every nation had an absolute right to control its borders. And despite his overly utopic, all-you-need-is-love rhetoric redolent of John Lennon’s imaginary borderless world, the proud former President of a proud nation did not give the impression that he was quite ready for Mexico to be governed by, say, Havana, or Washington D.C.; content though he seemed to be for Britain to be governed by Brussels.

The most important area of agreement was over the concept, if not the details, of free trade. Both gentlemen recognized that free trade is the best way to create national wealth. On this topic, Farage displayed the traditionalist British approach to economic policy, which eschews central planning more than it embraces the tenets of free market capitalism. Farage was willing, a little too willing, to accept tariffs, if only as a defensive measure against nations employing un-free trade policies of their own.

It is an interesting aside, is it not, how President Trump’s populist left-turn on free-trade has re-oriented the issue here at home? If Trump accomplishes nothing else during his tenure, perhaps persuading the left to embrace, however reluctantly, free trade – the ultimate realization of Adam Smith’s vision – will suffice.

The dilemma, then, is can a nation maximize both the benefits of free trade and the retention of national sovereignty? When Germany surrendered the Deutsche Mark in favor of the common European currency, for example, it gave up the right to make much of its own economic policy. Can free trade only be facilitated within a homogenized, monolithic super-bureaucracy that subordinates democratic will? Are free trade and national sovereignty mutually exclusive?

No, but the answer requires an examination of the role and value of the nation-state, and of the ancillary issues of immigration, assimilation, the future of manufacturing, the effect of distortions to the market, and so forth, an examination well primed by Messrs. Farage, Fox and Kaufman, for which the Steamboat Institute is to be thanked.

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.