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Antisocial Communitarianism: The Communitarian Defense of Tariffs

Summary:
Economics, Social Justice Communitarians prize community, belonging, and intra-group loyalty. But the things they are willing to do to their community members, in the name of promoting community, make them awful community members. Here’s Henry Olson defending Trump’s trade war on communitarian grounds: Trump’s vision rests on an idea of community and nation that has fallen into disfavor among elites on both the Left and Right. Americans, in Trump’s view, are not simply individuals whose value is determined by market transactions. They are our fellow citizens, people to whom we have an obligation that is separate from their ability to persuade or compel the owners of capital to invest in their

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Economics, Social Justice

Communitarians prize community, belonging, and intra-group loyalty. But the things they are willing to do to their community members, in the name of promoting community, make them awful community members.

Here’s Henry Olson defending Trump’s trade war on communitarian grounds:

Trump’s vision rests on an idea of community and nation that has fallen into disfavor among elites on both the Left and Right. Americans, in Trump’s view, are not simply individuals whose value is determined by market transactions. They are our fellow citizens, people to whom we have an obligation that is separate from their ability to persuade or compel the owners of capital to invest in their lives. When their dreams cannot be fulfilled or their lives are harmed because other Americans make decisions that directly or indirectly harm them, then we must act through our government to set things right.

This view carries with it a less materialistic and more spiritual view of what it means to be human. The American who can produce something of value produces far more than the value of the goods or services he produces. That person produces pride and dignity. Earning enough through one’s one efforts to support one’s life vision is the most basic source of pride. The great or talented may take pride in other things, such as the ability to best others in competition or build something outside themselves like a business or a work of art. But these more recognized sources of pride-inducing achievement ultimately rest on the most common and basic ability to produce enough of sustenance to support one’s self and one’s family.

Populists like Trump address this spiritual yearning and fulfill the deepest need every human has, to be valued and to belong to a group that values you. In this, and perhaps in this need alone, all men are truly created equal. Tariffs are simply an economic means to fulfill this spiritual need. Tariff opponents can only win if they first recognize this need and promise a more effective way to fulfill it.

Read the whole thing. Oddly, Olsen briefly acknowledges the economic case against tariffs, and acknowledges that the tariffs may harm the very people they’re supposed to help. But, no matter, at least Trump expresses concern for the right people and the right values.

Two problems:

First, despite all the high-minded talk of community, these kinds of attitudes are fundamentally antisocial. Suppose Bob wants to buy a car made in Munich. Tom, who makes cars in Dearborn, says, “I have a more spiritual view of humanity. I don’t just build mediocre trucks; I produce pride and dignity! [Unlike Bavarian workers, I guess.] So, therefore, I propose that we use violence and threats of violence to make you pay an extra 25% to the government if you insist on getting that new 340i. We’ll use that money to blow up some brown people, build some walls in Texas, pay off ADM, and, oh, maybe I’ll get a cut too. You know, ’cause I’m spiritual.”

In this case, Tom sure doesn’t seem like a spiritual person with a strong love of community. He seems like, oh, …what’s the word?…a contemptible bully and asshole. If were Bob, I’d consider Tom my enemy, not a civic friend. Tom loves being in community with me so much that he’s willing to put a gun to my face to ensure I buy from him. Who would want to live with people like that? It’s a fundamentally antisocial attitude.

Second, if tariffs don’t actually succeed in helping these workers, then the symbolic argument falls flat. Imagine an artist said, “I’m so concerned about the plight of people living in tenements, I’m going to do a performance art project where I burn down all their homes and leave them on the street. Sure, that will make them even worse off, but my heart is in the right place, and I thereby express my concern for them.” This artist would be…a contemptible asshole.

I’ve often said that leftists are bad at leftism, meaning they promote means which undermine their ends. But I’d add that communitarians both Left and Right are bad at community; they use antisocial means to promote community.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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