Project Syndicate has an ongoing series by Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati on “The Open Economy and its Enemies.” There is more or less a consensus among economists that free trade promotes economic growth; the law of comparative advantage still holds nearly two centuries after it was formulated. But the opinions of both the public and other social scientists are more ambivalent.
Competition is the means by which actors in an open economy are disciplined. But competition generates losers and winners, too –at least in the short run. Non-economic concerns with free trade include growing inequality, the constant displacement of people under conditions of ruthless competition, environmental degradation, the globe-spanning hazards of mutual dependency, and national security.
Critics of free trade may accuse economists of linear thinking for ignoring the messiness of reality. But economists might equally accuse critics of free trade for ignoring the bottom line –that increased wealth will expand the possibilities of what a society can accomplish.
The free trade debate, like many others, asks how willing we are to trade increased levels of wealth for other values, and under what conditions. Not surprisingly, this debate tends to come to the fore in times of economic uncertainty.
Image by Flickr user free range jace used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
Equality butts heads with freedom
Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith write at Politico that a new debate about first principles and the role of government has replaced the social issues at stake during the “culture wars” of the last three decades.
This dispute over first principles is deeply entwined with questions of national identity and the appropriate role of the government in the economy.
On one extreme is a minimalist state, in which the government is responsible for little more than upholding the rule of law and providing for a common defense. On the other extreme is a socialist state in which the government manages all facets of economic activity.
Neither extreme applies to any industrialized country today. Rather, the modern world is populated by welfare states of various stripes.
Douthat clarifies his argument
In his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat wrestles with one of the most persuasive critiques of his recent article against gay marriage; the notion that there is no reason to view heterosexual relationships as exceptional or “distinctive” in a way that merits them being prioritized over homosexual relationships.
In responding Douthat argues that:
The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not.
Charles asks some provocative questions in his post today about the role of government versus the power of the market to lift people out of extreme destitution.
But his approach, which focuses on individual responsibility and government constraint, begs the question by assuming, first, that all government action counts as a constraint on liberty and, second, that all individuals are capable of personal responsibility.
This account is not baseless, but it leaves little space for one reason people may suffer: structural barriers to opportunity and liberty. Read more
Why Ross Douthat fails to deliver
(A) What values gay marriage threatens,
(B) The process by which it threatens those values,
(C) The values protected or promoted by the legalization of gay marriage, and
(D) Why the values gay marriage threatens outweigh those it promotes.
Douthat focuses on the (A) category and completely ignores the other three. He argues that gay marriage threatens the Western ideal of “lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate.”
Republican leaders have reversed course after it was widely reported last week that some top Republicans are reconsidering the 14th Amendment right that guarantees citizenship to those born in the United States. In an Associated Press article, Jeff Sessions of Alabama was quoted detailing his party’s concerns about the amendment with respect to immigration policy:
“I’m not exactly sure what the drafters of the [14th] amendment had in mind, but I doubt it was that somebody could fly in from Brazil and have a child and fly back home with that child, and that child is forever an American citizen…”
Similar comments from other Republican lawmakers have generated controversy, and Republican leadership has since backpedaled. Is challenging birthright citizenship merely partisan and discriminatory, or is it a
reasonable idea made indefensible by its controversial nature?
The gay marriage debate in California and beyond
In a 136-page decision, Federal Judge Vaughn Walker has overturned California’s Proposition 8, which provided that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid.” A (temporary) triumph for supporters of gay marriage, the case will likely be appealed and eventually find its way to the Supreme Court.
The gay marriage debate is but one battle in a larger “culture war” between two diametrically opposed worldviews, with differing beliefs about human flourishing and the societal consequences of social liberation. Read more
Clean water as a fundamental human right: theoretical justifications and consequences
Last week the United Nations declared clean water a “fundamental human right.” This is not a large departure from the rights to food, education, and employment that have already been embraced by the UN, yet such “welfare” rights are still controversial. Critics have argued that access to things such as food and water are not rights, that governments are obligated to prioritize and deliver immediately, but rather important policy goals.
The UN “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.” It is easy to see how a right to life would entail a right to clean water, as well as rights to food and medicine. In fact, some might even argue that rights to employment, education – indeed, all the welfare rights, including the rights to a certain standard of living – stem from the right to life. To many American ears, however, this would be going too far. Read more
Many things have been blamed for the economic crisis, including easy credit, consumer (and banker) irrationality, poor regulation, unmonitored derivatives trading, the inappropriate use of government-sponsored enterprises, and the underlying forces of the global real-estate bubble. In a Project Syndicate article, Raghuram Rajan, a finance professor at the University of Chicago and former chief economist of the IMF, has a particularly interesting and unique take on the root causes of the crisis. According to Rajan, the proximate cause of the financial crisis was easy credit, with inequality at its root. Inequality led policymakers to pursue policies that encouraged consumption rather than addressing the root problem of stagnant middle-and-lower class incomes in an increasingly skill-biased economy.
So it turns out that inequality –- an issue generally seen as normative — may play an explanatory role in the most consequential economic challenge of our time. Could this be true of other things generally thought of in moral terms, such as freedom, order, peace, or justice? Are these only moral goods in their own right, or do they also have real bearing on outcomes that we might consider desirable?
Image used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user saxarocks
The Muslim burqa and equal rights
On The New York Times’ The Stone, its new philosophy commentary series, University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum wrote in response to Spain’s recent, narrow rejection of a ban on public wearing of the Muslim burqa. She gives a quick history of what Western political philosophy has said on the topics of equal rights and free exercise before examining five arguments commonly made in support of this sort of ban.
Her responses to the arguments are certainly convincing. Nussbaum effectively demonstrates the inconsistency or hypocrisy in Western resistance to burqas, and anyone who reads the piece is more likely to dislike the idea of banning burqas.
But her most compelling point is also the most unique: Westerners cannot seem to recognize the inconsistency of their arguments against burqas because they are Westerners, burqa-wearing is not traditionally Western, and burqa-wearers are not viewed as traditionally Western.