Protectionism as a Path to Piety


Answering the parricidal economists.


Frédéric Bastiat’s Candlestick Makers’ Petition, an open letter to the French Parliament written in 1845, gets trotted out by free-trade fundamentalists every time anyone says the word tariff.  Bastiat’s goal was to take the protectionist’s position to its logical extreme in order to mock protectionism via satire.  He distinguishes between free-traders who seek low prices and protectionists who seek to protect domestic industry.  He sarcastically commends the French government for its protectionism.  Then, he notes that a foreign threat, the sun, is dumping cheap light into France, which hinders the domestic candle-making industry.  The solution, he argues, is that the government must pass a law to block the sunlight.

Not surprisingly, as President Trump was ramping up his talk of trade wars and tariffs, Mark J. Perry, professor of economics at the University of Michigan-Flint, wrote a modernized version of the petition for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  He summoned his inner Bastiat by petitioning President Trump at the behest of the fictitious “American Lighting Association” and “International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.”  Perry ridicules the President for lacking reasoned economic philosophy:

We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity for your—what shall we call it?  Your theory of international trade?  No, nothing is more deceptive than economic theory.  Your trade doctrine?  Your principle?  But you dislike economic doctrines, and as for principles, you deny that there are any in politics; therefore we shall call it your political practice—your practice about international trade without any economic theory and without any principle.

He informs the President that the American electrical lighting industry is suffering because the sun is engaging in the unfair trade practice of “dumping” free light into the U.S.  He speculates that the sun must be receiving subsidies that allow it to dump light below the cost of production and implores Trump to “Make America Great Again” by 

passing laws that require the permanent closing of all windows, skylights, shutters, curtains, and blinds—in short, all openings in US buildings that allow the free natural light of the sun to enter our houses and buildings, to the great disadvantage of the domestic lighting industry.

Loyal to Bastiat’s style, Perry uses logic and knowledge of the President’s past policy positions to entrap him:

Mr. President, when it comes to US trade policy, please be consistent.  For as long as you plan to exit from NAFTA and continue to impose tariffs on foreign steel, solar panels, aluminum, lumber, aircraft, washing machines, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to freely [sic] admit the light of the sun into the US market, whose price is zero all day long!

Libertarian arguments are often clever and reasonable.  So reasonable that they border on insanity.  As Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason.  The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

With a little reason, one could derive much amusement from contriving similar petitions.  One could easily ridicule a policeman trying to incarcerate a murderer: “You are right to imprison that man.  But, the sun has also killed people via heat stroke, dehydration, and skin cancer.  Help us incarcerate the sun.  I ask that you be consistent!”  A socialist could just as easily mock the capitalist Bastiat by petitioning for privatization of the sun: “Bastiat, you are right to favor privatization.  People take better care of that which they own.  So, why not privatize the sun?  What’s more, this problem you identify only demonstrates that we need a price mechanism.  If Mr. Rockefeller were to buy the sun, he would surely take the opportunity to profit from his investment by restricting and monetizing sunlight.  Capitalist principles would solve the problem.  Join our effort to privatize the sun!”  As Richard Weaver argues in Ideas Have Consequences,

If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good.  We have no authority to argue anything of a social or political nature unless we have shown by our primary volition that we approve some aspects of the existing world.

Bastiat and Perry make reasoned arguments, but they are the arguments of prideful men who are dead to sentiment.  To equate the idiotic practice of blocking the inflow of sunlight with blocking the inflow of foreign goods is to raise a straw man; it is a false equivalence.  There is a big difference between the two activities; this difference concerns piety.

Piety is a part of justice.  Justice is one of the reasonable, natural virtues.  Justice is giving what is owed.  Piety is giving what is owed to father and fatherland.  More broadly, piety involves the relationship one has with the natural world.  Or as Weaver suggests in a 1958 Modern Age essay, “it signifies an attitude towards things which are immeasurably larger and greater than oneself without which man is an insufferably brash, conceited, and frivolous animal.”

Classically educated students initially learn of piety through the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro.  Euthyphro prosecuted his father, who had killed his own servant.  Euthyphro describes his own actions as pious and his father’s as impious.  He claims to be pious because his actions pleased the gods.  But Socrates questions Euthyphro: “Is something pious because God wills it?  Or does God will something because it is pious?”

In his response to Socrates, Euthyphro resembles one of Chesterton’s reasonable madmen; he believes in himself utterly and talks in circles.  By defining piety as “whatever pleases the gods” Euthyphro immediately invokes the supernatural, thus inviting Socratic interrogation.  As noted, piety is a natural, not a supernatural, virtue.  But Euthyphro invoked the supernatural because he was prideful: He saw nothing between himself and God.

One cannot achieve the supernatural virtues at the expense of the natural ones.  And the supernatural virtues are much more difficult to exercise.  Men need to practice the natural ones before attempting the supernatural ones.  God introduced men to an “eye for an eye” before He told them to “turn the other cheek.”  Christianity teaches that charity is a supernatural virtue.  But Christianity also teaches that charity begins at home.  If one cannot be pious, how can one be charitable?  Piety is not a part of charity, but piety is anterior to charity.

As creatures, we owe everything to the Creator.  Therefore, nothing can be more just than honoring God the Father, giving Him what He is due.  But it stands to reason that the man who cannot honor his father on earth will struggle to honor his Father in heaven.  There is something in this earthly order that directs man to the heights.

For an explanation, one may start with the words of John the apostle.  John associated God with order.  He begins his gospel: “In the beginning was logos, and logos was with God, and logos was God.”  A few verses later, he adds, “Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Jesus Christ is Logos incarnate.  The universe was made through Logos.

Logos means order, and order means hierarchy.

The family is inherently hierarchical, with children subordinate to parents.  When God created the family, He willed man and woman into existence and commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply.”  He created that ancient relationship between parents and offspring.  It is this very relationship that Euthyphro sought to disturb.  As Weaver notes, “It is highly significant to learn that when Plato undertakes a discussion of the nature of piety and impiety, he chooses as interlocutor a young man who is actually bent upon parricide.”

Even in difficult situations, parents tend to love their children, and children their parents.  It would have been natural for Euthyphro to have what Weaver calls “a prerational sentiment” toward his father.  “Sentiment,” Weaver states, “is anterior to reason.”  However, Euthyphro pretended that his reason was anterior to sentiment.  In doing so, he acted impiously.  Weaver concludes, “Euthyphro has no right, out of his partial and immature knowledge, to proceed contemptuously against an ancient relationship.”

Bastiat chose sunlight as an exaggerated point of comparison in his famous satire.  But God willed sunlight into existence: “And God said, Let there be light . . . ”  Blocking out this life-enabling substance is clearly impious.  One does not have to be a theologian to understand this.  Traditionally, men have not sought to inflict their will upon the sun.  But they have let the sun dictate to them—taking rest when it disappeared and resuming work when it reappeared.  Men instinctually understood that there was an order to the universe and that they ought to live accordingly.  In doing so, they practiced justice.  In practicing justice, they practiced piety.

With Euthyphro in mind, consider the relationship man has to the sun.  It is similar to the relationship he has with his parents.  The sun was there when he was born, it tells him when to awaken and when to slumber, and he wouldn’t have life without it.  But most importantly, the sun is an integral part of the solar system.  And life wouldn’t exist without it.

This is what Bastiat misses: Some protectionists do not ultimately seek lower prices or stronger domestic production, but what Weaver terms rational society.

Rational society is a mirror of the logos, and this means that it has a formal structure which enables apprehension. . . . If society is something which can be understood, it must have structure; if it has structure, it must have hierarchy; against this metaphysical truth the declamations of the Jacobins break in vain.

Euthyphro upended the natural hierarchy.  In doing so, he cut off his taproot to Eden.  He failed to respect his father’s degree within the natural order.  And he learned that without degree, he could not reach the supernatural.  As Shakespeare’s Ulysses well understood (in Troilus and Cressida), degree “is the ladder to all high designs.”  And when degree is taken away, “each thing meets in mere oppugnancy.”

O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!  How could communities, 
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities, 
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string.
And, hark, what discord follows!  Each thing meets 
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores 
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead; 
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too! 
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

We are born into an hierarchical structure: family, folk, fatherland.  To live piously is to accept one’s place in this structure, which entails favoring the near over the far.  This includes favoring one’s family and countrymen over foreigners.  Favoring the far-off over the nearby is impious.  Thus, importing foreign workers to do the work that one’s neighbors could do is impious.  Exporting work to foreign lands that could be done by one’s neighbors is impious.  We owe something to our father simply because he is our father, and to our fatherland simply because it is our fatherland.

Furthermore, exalting the science of economics over the natural order and our obligations to it is impious.  Science does not change the fact that we were born into our communities, to our fathers, and to our fatherlands.  It is impious and unjust to revolt against this order.  As Weaver ends his note on Euthyphro:

In our contemporary setting the young man stands for science and technology, and the father for the order of nature.  For centuries now, we have been told that our happiness requires an unrelenting assault upon this order; dominion, conquest, triumph—all these names have been used as if it were a military campaign.  Somehow the notion has been loosed that nature is hostile to man or that her ways are offensive or slovenly, so that every step of progress is measured by how far we have altered these.  Nothing short of a recovery of the ancient virtue of pietas can absolve man from this sin. 

Piety obliges us to favor our own families and neighbors over cheaper blue jeans, smartphones, hybrid cars, solar panels, and washing machines.


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