Metaphors in disputes over trade policy often run in a religious vein: ‘free trade’ is an article of faith; protection is—or, perhaps, is not—a sin; protectionists are disciples of darkness; reformers—or reactionaries—are evangelists of hope and rationality. In the debates on trade policy, as in the even more vicious debates on development policy, the rhetoric rises to the heavens as the invective sinks below. But the goal of all rhetoric is persuasion, and advocates of both reform and reaction may fail to persuade for surprisingly similar reasons One of the most influential analysts and historians of economic reform is the redoubtable “Albert Hirschman”:http://www.ias.edu/About/faculty/hirschman.php who has commented on many heated debates about development and growth policies skeptically, but from a humane perspective, over his long career. The following is from an essay he wrote for The American Prospect in 1993. Reformers in their enthusiasm, Hirschman argues, make mistakes that are the precisely the converse of those rhetorical errors he attributes to reactionaries (reactionary complaints of the perversity or futility of reform or the jeopardy that it creates). Reformers fail to convince says Hirschman when they argue, in the same mode as reactionaries, that: bq. “1) We should adopt a certain reform or policy because as things are we are caught, or will shortly land in, a desperate predicament that makes immediate action imperative regardless of the consequences–this argument attempts to
deflect and neutralize the perversity thesis. bq. 2) We should adopt a certain reform or policy because such is the law or tide of history–this argument is the counterpart of the futility thesis, according to which attempts at change will come to naught because of various ‘iron
laws.’ bq. 3) We should adopt a certain reform or policy because it will solidify earlier accomplishments–this is the progressive’s retort to the jeopardy claim that the reform is bound to wreck some earlier progress.”(“American Prospect Online(link to this excerpt)”:http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=5117) Hirschman recommends that reformers try to design their reforms taking into account the likely opposition on perversity, futility or jeopardy arguments. For example, ‘perverse’ outcomes are not always bad outcomes seen from a different angle. He urges reformers to resist the urge to claim that history is on their side—as we insinuate when we show the graphs of historical declines in the level of protection with the implication that the trend must continue. He points out that most of the claims ever made about ‘revolution’ and renewal, or the claims then being made (at the beginning of the 1990s) about history’s end, are universally considered implausible and unpersuasive only shortly after they are made. Finally, he warns that arguments from synergy—another form of the ‘historical inevitability’ argument that all good things go together, like liberalization and economic growth—“can mask a reformer’s readiness to push through one “good thing” at the cost, if need be, of the others”. These are tough standards to follow.
Peter Gallagher is student of piano and photography. He was formerly a senior trade official of the Australian government. For some years after leaving government, he consulted to international organizations, governments and business groups on trade and public policy.
He teaches graduate classes at the University of Adelaide on trade research methods and the role of firms in trade and growth and tweets trade (and other) stuff from @pwgallagher