No Trade Is Free: Changing Course, Taking on China, and Helping America’s Workers
By Robert Lighthizer.
Broadside Books, 2023.
Hardcover, 384 pages, $32.00.
Review by Frank Filocomo.
Ever since the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump in 2016, the issue of trade has been at the forefront of American political discourse. Trump, though not particularly ideological about most issues, was crystal clear about where he stood on trade. Free trade, he frequently admonished, would ineluctably lead to the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, a phenomenon Ross Perot dubbed “the giant sucking sound.” His nomination of Robert Lighthizer to the office of United States Trade Representative, therefore, came as no surprise. Lighthizer, though never explicitly labeling himself as a protectionist, always had protectionist sympathies. While serving as deputy USTR under President Reagan and in various op-eds, he often harkened back to the days of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Republican protectionism. The GOP, he rightly notes, was then the party of egregiously high tariffs on foreign imports. It was the Democrats, whose constituencies were in the agrarian South, that favored trade liberalization. While the American electorate has changed substantially in the decades since, Lighthizer never stopped alluding to those halcyon days of McKinleyite economic nationalism.
In his new book, No Trade Is Free: Changing Course, Taking On China, and Helping America’s Workers, Lighthizer details his time as USTR in the Trump administration and makes an impassioned case for a more nationalistic and, ultimately, state-centric approach to trade. While, on the surface, this may leave a bad taste in the mouths of free trade absolutists, Lighthizer’s book is surprisingly nuanced and is in no way a plea for any kind of American mercantilism or neo-isolationism. Rather, Lighthizer provides a more idiosyncratic view on trade: one that is ultimately divorced from any kind of rigid ideology or textbook dogma. His rather favorable perspective on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the country’s first major step in the direction of trade-liberalization, proves this point. It would be reasonable to assume that Lighthizer would be averse to any efforts to reduce trade barriers, but this is not the case. GATT, unlike other subsequent agreements, dealt exclusively with countries with whom we had good relations.
In later years, though, the process of tariff reduction hit the gas pedal and adversarial countries entered into the equation. As alluded to in the subtitle of the book, trade with China is of utmost importance to Lighthizer. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization, the contemporary iteration of GATT. China’s approach since has not exactly been friendly to America. It is an illiberal, anti-democratic State that wishes to secure total hegemony over East Asia. And many posit that its ambitions extend more globally. Since joining the WTO, China, to no one’s surprise, has not played by the rules. It regularly devalues its currency, makes exports markedly cheaper, and steals U.S. intellectual property. What’s more, China is an explicitly mercantilist state. It imposes egregiously high tariffs on foreign imports, curtails outsider access to its markets wherever possible, and subsidizes its own industries. All of this, Lighthizer astutely notes, presents not just an existential threat to American workers and U.S. national security, but to the global body politic writ large. Few, with the exception of certain libertarian ideologues, would argue against some kind of economic retaliation on our part. Lighthizer’s weapon of choice: tariffs.
Since the 1930s, after President Herbert Hoover signed the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff—which is regularly cited as having exacerbated the economic toll of the Great Depression, whether rightly or not—into law, the word “tariff” has become increasingly taboo. Tariffs are viewed by the establishment as being economically backward and detrimental to American consumers. While there may be some validity to these claims, Lighthizer makes a compelling case for them as a tool to blunt the economic hawkishness of a rising China. Lighthizer, having leveraged tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods during trade negotiations, helped put China on its back foot. The Chinese, for too long, thought that anything that was seen as an impingement on free trade orthodoxy was out of question for the Americans. Trump and Lighthizer, however, flipped the script, often to the chagrin of their counterparts in the GOP.
The success of Lighthizer’s use of tariffs on Chinese imports as a strategic tool did not go unnoticed. In 2021, President Joe Biden and Kathryn Tai, Lighthizer’s successor at the USTR, continued the Trump tariffs, a devastating blow to proponents of trade liberalization in both parties. This signified the triumph of economic populism in American politics—at least for the moment.
While Lighthizer’s arguments throughout the book are mostly compelling, there are some critical components that he leaves out or touches on only briefly. There is, for example, only one paragraph dedicated to the most consequential piece of trade legislation in American history: the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (RTAA). The RTAA, a bill almost completely unknown to the entirety of the American electorate, effectuated a paradigmatic shift in how tariff rates would be decided. Passed by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 1934 after a devastating midterm for Republicans, the RTAA stripped the legislature of its ability to determine tariff rates on various imports and transferred it to the executive branch. Thanks to the Democrats, the president, with his new powers, would embark on a seemingly perpetual trade-liberalizing journey.
For decades after the passage of the RTAA, Republicans were determined to reallocate tariff-implementing powers back to the legislature. Why, though, did Republicans want these powers? Lighthizer would have the reader believe that Republicans had an ideological commitment to protectionism because they believed it would facilitate a robust domestic economy. This, though, was hardly the case. It wasn’t so much that Republicans were tariff hawks because they believed in the sovereignty of American markets (though, for some, this was the case), but rather because organized interests like the American Tariff League lobbied vociferously for high tariffs. During this era, Republicans were concentrated mainly in the north, where protecting domestic industry was of paramount importance. Foreign imports were seen as a threat. Republican representatives, therefore, thought it politically advantageous to capitulate to their constituency’s desire for government duties on foreign goods.
So while accurately describing the protectionist nature of the early Republican Party, Lighthizer fails to expound on the true motivations behind the average GOP representative’s predilection for high import duties. This is all plainly depicted in E. E. Schattschneider’s 1935 tome, Politics, Pressures, and the Tariff.
Though lacking in some historical detail, Lighthizer’s book contributes significantly to the ever-important conversation on trade. Lighthizer, whether we like it or not, must be credited with disrupting nearly 80 years of establishment orthodoxy on trade. During his time as USTR in the Trump administration, Lighthizer made it clear that “America First” trade policy could very well exist outside of the pages of a Pat Buchanan book. To have this kind of a behind-the-scenes look into the negotiations of an acting Trade Representative is priceless.
Frank Filocomo is a graduate student at New York University and program manager at National Review Institute.
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