My research on the current revival of protectionist rhetoric, from President Trump to Marine Le-Pen, led me to survey the major philosophical arguments for free trade. Despite all major philosophical schools supporting free trade, from Kantianism to utilitarianism to the doctrine of double effect, protectionism still manages to persuade many of its moral superiority.
As I was compiling research notes, I was taken by the thoughts of John Rawls. Courtesy of his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, Rawls’ major contribution to political philosophy was his conception of the ‘original position’ and the accompanying ‘veil of ignorance’. In the original position, people determine the principles under which they will be governed – from a position of equality among free and rational persons.
However, no one knows their place in society – class position, wealth, personal abilities etc. From behind this veil of ignorance, Rawls proceeds to develop the principles he believes persons in that position would decide upon – one, crucially, being free trade.
On free trade, Rawls believes that “persons engaged in a particular industry often find that free trade is contrary to their interests… but if free trade is desirable from the point of view of equal citizens… it is justifiable even though more specific interests suffer”. Within the constraints of the veil of ignorance, not knowing whether they would be winners or losers from trade, individuals would know they would be more likely than not to benefit. Protectionism is therefore irrational.
My time sifting through academic papers and opinion pieces has reinforced for me two ideas. Firstly, if liberal principles are to endure the vagaries of history they require constant and robust repetition. Secondly, that, as the famous phrase goes, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is vigilance against the slow erosion of cultural and political freedoms.
This must also be coupled with an awareness of the adamantine allure of tribalism and iconoclasm for ill-defined notions of equality or liberation.
During my cultural excursions, I came across Amerling’s Three Finest Things at the Wien Museum Karlsplatz – a museum exhibiting the City’s history and culture. The painting refers to the saying, wrongly attributed to Martin Luther, that the three finest things are wine, women, and song.
Being preoccupied at the AEC with the grand battle of ideas made me appreciate its humorous simplicity. After a fashion, the struggle for liberty is a struggle for those three fine things… or the choice to live life as a tee-totalling celibate who does not own a radio.
In addition to visiting the Museum, I went down to Haydnhaus, Joseph Haydn’s final residence, and, through the kindness of a charming benefactor, saw a performance of the Barber of Seville at the Volksoper.