Protection is Like War
Much of what we know is by analogy, because, as Jacob Bronowski put it, “at the basis of human thought lies the judgment of what is like and what is unlike.” Analogies are so important in extending understanding and expressing ideas that William James said, “A native talent for perceiving analogies is reckoned . . . as the leading fact in genius of every order.”
By James’s criterion, few people have merited the term genius more than Henry George. Considered by some the most important economist in 19th century America (despite completing only 5 months of secondary schooling), George relied heavily on analogical reasoning in his works.
Nowhere was this better done than in his 1886 Protection or Free Trade?, which was a devastating critique of the arguments of protectionists. In Chapter 6, “Trade,” George used an analogy to war to show what trade was unlike (in fact, he called trade “the extinguisher of war”), and an analogy to the body, particularly the circulatory system, to show what trade was like, with both showing the folly of protectionism.
Given how much the pleading of interest groups still befogs most people’s understanding of the logic of free trade by dressing up the special favors of protectionism as something else, Henry George’s analogies merit attention as much now as when he wrote.
Trade, Protection and War
“It is not from foreigners that protection preserves and defends us; it is from ourselves. Trade is not invasion. It does not involve aggression on one side and resistance on the other, but mutual consent and gratification . . . what was done was not to force the people to trade, but to force their governments to let them.”
“Civilized nations, however, do not use their armies and fleets to open one another’s ports to trade. What they use their armies and fleets for, is, when they quarrel, to close one another’s ports. . . . Trade does not require force. Free trade consists simply in letting people buy and sell as they want to buy and sell. It is protection that requires force, for it consists in preventing people from doing what they want to do. Protective tariffs are as much applications of force as are blockading squadrons, and their object is the same—to prevent trade. The difference between the two is that blockading squadrons are a means whereby nations seek to prevent their enemies from trading; protective tariffs are a means whereby nations attempt to prevent their own people from trading. What protection teaches us is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.”
“Can there be any greater misuse of language than to apply to commerce terms suggesting strife, and to talk of one nation invading, deluging, overwhelming or inundating another with goods? Goods! What are they but good things—things we are all glad to get? Is it not preposterous to talk of one nation forcing its good things upon another nation? Who individually would wish to be preserved from such invasion? Who would object . . . who would take it kindly if any one should assume to protect him by driving off those who wanted to bring him such things?”
“When in the common use of the word we speak of individuals or communities protecting themselves, there is always implied the existence of some external enemy or danger, such as . . . robbers or invaders; something disposed to do what the protected object to. . . . What [systems of restriction] defend a people against is not external enemies or dangers, but what that people themselves want to do.“
Trade and the Social Body
“as civilization progresses and social relations grow more complex. That power of the whole which is lodged in governments is limited in its field of consciousness and action much as the conscious will of the individual is limited. . . . There is, beyond national direction and below national consciousness, a life and relation of parts and a performance of functions which are to the social body what the vital processes are to the physical body.”
“What would happen to the individual if all the functions of the body were placed under the control of the consciousness . . . is what would happen to a nation in which all individual activities were directed by government.”
“though a people collectively may institute a tariff to prevent trade, their individual wants and desires will still force them to try to trade, just as when a man ties a ligature round his arm, his blood will still try to circulate. For the effort of each to satisfy his desires with the least exertion, which is the motive of trade, is as instinctive and persistent as are the instigations which the vital organs of the body obey. It is not the importer and the exporter who are the cause of trade, but the daily and hourly demands of those . . . to whom trade carries that which they demand, just as the blood carries to each fiber of the body that for which it calls.”
“It is as natural for men to trade as it is for blood to circulate . . . finding in trade the possibility of social advance.”
“Thus the restrictions which protectionism urges us to impose upon ourselves are about as well calculated to promote national prosperity as ligatures, that would impede the circulation of the blood, would be to promote bodily health and comfort.”
“what any country ought to obtain in this way or in that cannot be settled by any Congress or Parliament. It can safely be left only to those sure instincts which are to society what the vital instincts are to the body, and which always impel men to take the easiest way open to them to reach their ends.”
“To assert that the way for men to become healthy and strong is for them to force into their stomachs what nature tries to reject, to regulate the play of their lungs by bandages, or to control the circulation of their blood by ligatures, would be not a whit more absurd than to assert that the way for nations to become rich is for them to restrict the natural tendency to trade.”
In Protection or Free Trade?, Henry George used analogies to war and the human body to show that protectionism is “prevention by a people not of what others want to do to them, but of what they themselves want to do.” By using such analogies, he was able to communicate the case for free trade in a way anyone who cared to could understand. Unfortunately, the misunderstandings he addressed, reinforced by those who benefit from them, have not been eradicated. They must be re-fought over and over. But there are few better places to start than his summary of such government “protection”:
“Protection [is] to preserve ourselves from and protect ourselves against something which offends no moral law; something to which we are instinctively impelled; something without which we could never have emerged from barbarism, and something which physical nature and social laws alike prove to be in conformity with the creative intent.”