The Ad Hoc Nature of Protectionism

I want to clarify the purpose of my earlier post.  The questions are an attempt to get protectionists to formulate a theory of protectionism.  As it stands, protectionism is extremely ad hoc.  Justifications for various protectionist tariffs range all over the place and are often contradictory with one another.  This is true whether you read a free-market approach to questioning protectionism (eg Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms) or protectionist books themselves (eg James Steuart’s Principles of Political Oeconomy).  There’s no unified theory of protectionism, just ad hoc explanations given.

Indeed, we often see protectionism presented as an exception rather than a rule.  “Oh sure, free trade is great and all,” the protectionist will often say, “but when someone is unfair then protectionism is needed.”  Or some justification is given for protecting infant industries (which, by the way, is contradictory to the unfair argument).  Or some exception is given for national defense (which is contradictory to the unfair and infant industry argument).  The list goes on.  The protectionists set up protectionism as a series of exceptions rather than rules.  It is insufficiently general to be called a theory in any sense.

The few attempts to generalize protectionism revolves around a tragedy of the commons style argument.  My earlier questions are designed to address that assumption.  To argue that protectionism is sufficiently general as to be the rule, and free trade the exception, to US policy, protectionists need to justify their generalizations.  The first step is through answering the questions I posed.  I’ve not seen any satisfying attempts to answer those questions.