Political Compass #15: Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade.

Many political debates here have included references to The Political Compass, which uses a set of 61 questions to assess one’s political orientation in terms of economic left/right and social libertarianism/authoritarianism (rather like the “Libertarian diamond” popular in the US).

And so, every so often I will begin a thread in which the premise for debate is one of the 61 questions. I will give which answer I chose and provide my justification and reasoning. Others are, of course, invited to do the same including those who wish to “question the question”, as it were. I will also suggest what I think is the “weighting” given to the various answers in terms of calculating the final orientation.

It would also be useful when posting in these threads to give your own “compass reading” in your first post, by convention giving the Economic value first. My own is
SentientMeat: Economic: -5.12, Social: -7.28, and so by the above convention my co-ordinates are (-5.12, -7.28). Please also indicate which option you ticked.

Now, I appreciate that there is often dissent regarding whether the assessment the test provides is valid, notably by US conservative posters, either because it is “left-biased” (??) or because some propositions are clearly slanted, ambiguous or self-contradictory. The site itself provides answers to these and other Frequently Asked Questions, and there is also a separate thread: Does The Political Compass give an accurate reading? Read these first and then, if you have an objection to the test in general, please post it there. If your objection is solely to the proposition in hand, post here. If your objection is to other propositions, please wait until I open a thread on them.

The above will be pasted in every new thread in order to introduce it properly, and I’ll try to let each one exhaust itself of useful input before starting the next. Without wanting to “hog the idea”, I would be grateful if others could refrain from starting similar threads. To date, the threads are:
Does The Political Compass give an accurate reading?
Political Compass #1: Globalisation, Humanity and OmniCorp.
#2: My country, right or wrong
#3: Pride in one’s country is foolish.
#4: Superior racial qualities.
#5: My enemy’s enemy is my friend.
#6: Justifying illegal military action.
#7: “Info-tainment” is a worrying trend.
#8: Class division vs. international division. (+ SentientMeat’s economic worldview)
#9: Inflation vs. unemployment.
#10: Corporate respect of the environment.
#11: From each according to his ability, to each according to need.
#12: Sad reflections in branded drinking water.
#13: Land should not be bought and sold.
#14: Many personal fortunes contribute nothing to society.

*Proposition #15: * Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade.

SentientMeat (-5.12, -7.28) ticks Disagree.

For all my pragmatic welfarism, here I must side with the arch-capitalist: Protectionism is myopic and, ultimately, mutually disadvantageous.

Now, all my prior talk of Popperian utilitarianism, wherein the minimisation of suffering is the ultimate goal, might smell a little fishy here. After all, if poor farmers’ livelihoods are at risk in “too free” a market, surely some protection would prevent such suffering?

Tempting, but ultimately misguided, I feel. Tariffs set without World Trade Organisation approval are subject to retaliatory measures which raise the spectre of Trade War. Even poor countries, where a loss of trade might genuinely mean a loss of life, must realise that banning foreign imports are not the way to stay friends with the world, who will often provide aid to ameliorate the worst effects of economic collapse. Whether such aid is “enough” is an important question, but unlike welfare for bankrupt farmers in a rich country there is no way to ensure that the rest of the world contributes. Protectionism on the part of a poor country is an enormous gamble - if it doesn’t make your country “self-sufficient”, then the world will be wary of ever giving you any more money in case you pull the same stunt again. (And, unlike the farmer, you cannot file for bankruptcy; your debts are never written off even though they kill vast numbers of your people year on year.)

However, protectionist acts by poor countries might at least be sympathised with since they are currently at an enormous disadvantage. Their markets could hardly be more free after decades of World Bank and IMF diktats which saw eg. cash crops replace those which could actually feed their people. On the other hand, protectionism is alive and well in the West. We subsidise, we artificially prop-up, we even place tariffs on our friends’ exports (the US steel scam, anyone?), and woe betide any Third Worlder trying to enter our labour markets; they are not so much “protected” as enclosed in electrified fence and defended by machine-gun turrets.

Since no World Government yet exists which might ensure enough investment to tackle Third World countries’ suffering, we in industrialised democracies must try and convince them that protectionism, which looks beneficial in the short term, is ultimately harmful. Doing this while our own markets are so protected is sheer breathtaking hypocrisy.

(+5.25, -4.10): Well, of course I agree.

Oops, I meant of course I disagree. I was agreeing with SentientMeat’s analysis.

I agree with the proposition. For national security reasons, it is better to have some critical industries such as steel production kept as viable enterprises within your borders, therefore some protectionism to keep them afloat is appropriate. Also, in the case of certain countries dumping slave labor created goods, protectionism is an appropriate vehicle for pressuring these nations into ending slave labor. Other than isolated examples, I’m generally in favor of free trade. For example, General Motors produces better cars today because of competition from imports. In general, free trade helps everybody.

Economic Left/Right: 4.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.18

Checks disagree, for all the usual libertarian reasons I’m too lazy to list right now…besides you’ve all heard them before. :slight_smile:


Freakishly, I agree exactly with BobLibDem. Such an event has never happened before and may never happen again. The stars must be in alignment. Your lucky numbers are 33, 13, 47, and 8.

Protectionism on a limited scale has proven to be of use in boostrapping some economies upward, but if it stands too long it becomes rooted int he political system and become s very hard to get rid of. This can cause immense diplomatic headaches and may ultimately screw you over again - if other countries see you beign too successful and you refuse to lower trade barriers to their industries, they can break your advantage by raising their own. But lowering them may not be an option because you’ve built a powerful domestic economic concern that, naturally, would be stuoid to help you lower the protection barriers.

Hey Bandit, give me two more numbers and I’ll play them in the Michigan Lotto!

6.88/-2.97 Disagree

Firstly, the word “Protectionism” is so vague that I’m unlcear what it might mean from one person to the next. I don’t want critical military software written in China or even India, so I would expect the Pentagon to have that done in the US (or at least by one of our closest military allies). Is that Protectionism? I wouldn’t consider that to be protectionism, but some people might.

Even if it were possible to show that protectionism “worked” in some isolated instances*, the potential for abuse and politically motivated action is so high that I don’t think it would be worth it. Whether you use a utilitarian analysis (greatest good for the greatest number) or a strictly libertarian analysis (maximizing individual freedom), I think you come to the same conclusion-- protectionism doesn’t work.

*I’d like to see the studies that domonstrate this, if anyone has them.

When protectionism is provided for specific industries or companies, then those companies benefit at the expense of the native population who has to pay extra for those products. So it does “bootstrap” those particular companies upward, because in a sense the population is being indirectly taxed with higher prices, with the proceeds given to the protected companies. And getting rid of the protectionism becomes difficult because the protected companies are unlikely to be able to survive without their special bonus once they get used to it.

I don’t see how it benefits either consumers or producers in the long run.

mr_moonlight (+5, -6) strongly disagree

(-5-something, -5-something)

Depends on your definition of “protectionism.”

History has shown us that capitalism is a carnivorous process. Left unchecked, large syndicates will pretty much devour competition; the result is monopoly, which has in the past proven to be pretty much ungood for everyone except the monopoly itself.

Furthermore, I don’t much care for the idea of exporting certain industries – or too much of ANY industry – overseas. Certainly, the loss of American jobs is worrisome, but worse is the idea that someday, China, for example, will decide that it’s in the perfect position to start World War Three, and whoopsie, they seem to have most of our infrastructure over THERE, and with a few deft blows, they cripple our economy. Is this a good idea? I mean, the main reason we won WWII was partly because our mainland was a bitch for Europe and Asia to reach, and partly because of our utterly insane industrial capacity and resource base.

Somehow, I don’t much like the idea of ANY industry being completely outside of US territory. Admittedly, Japan ain’t likely to cut off our supply of VCRs and DVD players anytime soon, but is it wise to be completely dependent on a foreign power for a given resource or product? Assuming it’s essential in some way to our well-being and way of life?

Just a note for the “agree” people in this thread: Be certain you are reading the question as it is written. Note that it says “necessary”, not 'desirable" or “beneficial”.

One issue we’re currently facing is that the aim of various oncoming international agreements on globalization seems to be to redefine certain indispensable, cherished, public government services (such as health care, education, transport, postal services) as ‘subsidized’ ‘protectionist’ ‘monopolies’ that ought to be ‘opened’ to competition from foreign companies. I find this incredibly troubling.

Strongly Disagree
5 Economic -5 Social

Again, my reasons are hardly surprising. With very few exceptions free trade is a good thing for all parties. One thing I would point out to Wang-Ka is that free trade works to make us safer. While your concern might be that critical industries are largely based overseas, there is greater interdependence between nations. If China supplies billions of dollars of goods to America, it can hardly afford to start a war. The more we rely on each other economically, the greater the interest in the well-being of each country.

(0.75, -5)


Free trade is almost invariably the way to go. But there are some circumstances where tariffs must be raised, and the proposition clearly states “Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade.” Unless it is your position that no government should ever use a protectionist barrier in ANY way, for any reason, you must agree with that proposition. “Sometimes necessary” is literally the case even if you think it’s only necessary once in a blue moon.

Furthermore, I would point out to the OP that if you do support WTO-allowed tariffs, you have to agree with this proposition, don’t you?


Sometimes it may be necessary.

It’s like “spending time outdoors is generally a good thing”, but, if it’s allergy season and you have bad allergies, you might want to stay indoors for a few days.

Similary, “free trade is generally a good thing”, but I can see why some countries might feel the need to utilize protectionism for a while (just as GWB did with the steel tariffs, though I don’t know if it was a good idea in that particular case)

Think about it: A woman in a Guangdong sweatshop works 80+ hours a week sewing bras for the equivalent of about $0.05/hour. She gets no vacation. She gets no health or retirement benefits. Her employer exports the bras to the U.S., where workers of her skill level could expect to work no more than 40 hours/week, make upwards of $8.00/hour, with two-weeks vacation, health insurance, and earn modest retirement benefits. Each bra costs the Guangdong manufacturer well under a dollar to manufacture; the same product in a place like the U.S. (where citizens have fought bitterly to enact labor laws that make earning a living wage theoretically attainable under humane conditions) would cost several times the Guangdong rate to produce.

In many industries, workers in democracies with reasonably fair labor laws must compete with the modern equivalent of indentured servants. Not only is unskilled labor at a severe disadvantage on purely economic terms, forcing them to compete at any level is to give tacit approval of the trade of goods produced under conditions that those in developed countries would find intollerable and unjust.

Where unmitigated capitolism perpetuates the use of human beings as chattel, so that a select few can prosper, I think a little protectionism is probably justified. The free trade experiment so far has demonstrated that lack of regulation leads to abuse of human rights, plain and simple. Globalization has not lead to widespread prosperity; it has simply made it easier for the already-wealthy to stay that way. Developing nations have not seen a redistribution of wealth; instead the economic disparities in the third world have become more stark, and the plight of the poor more desperate. This assessment is supported by facts.

Limited protectionism, designed to both shield First-world workers from having to compete with sweatshop labor, whilst seeking to level the playing field so that Third-world exporters are given economic incentives to treat their employees like human beings, is the only viable model for a global economy. The alternative is short-term gains for the wealthy at the cost of widespread socioeconomic strife. This basic paradigm has played itself out time and again, originally within borders, now across them. The pattern is widespread disenfranchisement leads eventually to armed conflict and loss-of-life in revolutionary struggles. To deny this is to deny history. Limited protectionism keeps the peace.

Steel tarrifs were a Bad Thing. One of the many issues I take with Bush was this one.

Again, I don’t think Protectionism is EVER ‘necessary in trade’, though I conceed that there could be situations where it was or may be desirable…in the short term, in very narrow or niche sectors or industries. However, the problem comes in getting rid of the things after they have served their usefulness…and realizing when they are genuinely starting to hurt you. For some special interests or very narrowly vertical markets they will ALWAYS want to keep them in place (especially after they are in place already…why give up such a good thing?), as it benifits them. However, most of the time such ‘benifits’ come at the cost of OTHER industries or trade sectors (like in the steel tarrifs example)…and sometimes it proceeds to cost you a good percentage of your total market.

So, I’ll stick by what I said…Protectionism is never ‘necessary’ and I disagree, though not ‘strongly disagree’.


If the US government decided to ban goods produced by slave labor, that would not be protectionism. Assuming the woman in Guangdong was not an actual slave, why would you want to deny her to opportunity to work? Since she is not a slave, one must assume that job is her best option. If economic conditions are such that one country can make bras cheaper than the US, we should import bras and make something else (like airplanes). There is no advantage I can think of that would behoove us to foster a domestic bra industry.

Good points by many on the Agree side, but I’m afraid I still believe that welfarism, not protectionism, is ultimately the only way to deal with economic hardship. Slave labour is a definite concern, but there are more effective ways of tackling it than simply slapping a tariff on the thing the poor labourer still only gets pennies for producing. I would further suggest that eg. minimum wage laws, secret military industry, universal healthcare or even UN sanctions are a rather strained interpretation of “protectionism”, and that wartime production crises are a bit of a red herring given that the proposition specified that protectionism was necessary in trade.

Heh heh, here I am arguing for the ultra-capitalist while you side with state intervention; who’da thunk it?!

I accept that WTO decisions which civilised nations agree to abide by are the way of the world. However, just because the WTO recognises the legitimacy of certain subsidy regimes does not mean that I actually support them. I would far rather a welfare/foreign aid safety net caught the losers of capitalism than artificial barriers essentially did the same job since the latter discriminates who is being helped according to profession or geography.

Of course, this same argument (that economic interdependence can prevent war) was rather infamously made prior to World War I.