I’ve been nostalgic for the ’60s ever since the interregnum presidency of good old Gerald Ford and the popular imposition of the War Measures Act in Canada, in 1970. Its music would still entertain us, but the lyrics of the ’60s were leading us nowhere. I don’t adapt to signals as fast as I did back then, while working in short pants on Parliament hill. But I never thought that in 2016 I’d already be missing the 20th century. It was a thing of beauty.
In the sphere of private passions and private virtues (in the rich westerly provinces of Europe and the northern regions of North America), we’re as free as the wicked visions of the Bloomsbury set. The liberal agenda we’ve set for ourselves today pretty well boils down to socialized suicide and a handful of leftover apologies for the sins of our dead tribal leaders. More importantly, our bread and butter agenda—our liberal ambitions for others, present and future—appears on hold.
The liberalism that stood on its own, that made it entirely different from all the stern, less human ideologies to its right and left, was a light in the dark: freedom for everyone, not just the boss’s clever sons, would ignite creativity and personal responsibility. And that the prosperity, what the hell, the awesome wealth that, together, they would generate would make life more tolerable and interesting.
Of course, after world war ended in 1945, peaceful competition for power resumed. But in the West, in emergencies and when operating in quiet times in Parliaments and in alliances, economic arguments ran within a liberal free-trade consensus: the factions of the left and right fought over means, adjustment supports, and timetables; when they procrastinated, they fought over adjectives, adverbs, and clauses in joint communiqués.
There were optimistic liberals and nervous liberals; unilateral, bilateral and multi-lateral liberals; liberals who were careful to preserve strong central governments and liberals who believed that healthier markets would best diminish corruption and reward innovation. Enjoying power within the consensus were politicians who even preferred to call themselves “social democrats” and “conservatives.” All pored over the same OECD, IMF, and World Bank numbers and studies to bolster their niche brands.
Yet, opinions about the times are a-changing.
We know the big data about global rising incomes, education, health, artistic activity, and living standards, whether in Mumbai, San Francisco, Trios-Rivieres in Quebec, Mexico City, or Philadelphia. Yet, today, we are told to set those facts aside and defer, if only for a while, to demagogues who don’t respect them.
Eminent Machiavellians are telling overflowing classrooms of political junkies and survivalists in government and big business that 20th-century Anglo-American free trade liberalism is overripe. It must quiet down and take a pause—wait out populist troublemakers or adopt that just-watch-me style that nearly destroyed Europe and as waking up Asia.
All those places that have been laissez-faire liberal for most of the last five generations are facing waves of refugees from wretched places ruined by anti-liberal regimes. While we open our arms to some of their victims, our leaders are cowed by signs of local disillusionment and outright opposition to core liberal interests.
My fear for the immediate future is based on the responses of our most influential liberal institutions and liberal leaders, not the menace of dilettante bullies. Our constitutional democracies can take a punch. The Trumps come and go. It’s the meekness of popular liberals and influential corporate leaders that may be making history, badly.
Here’s the underreported response to a growing “protectionist environment” by Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric—one of a handful of truly great global enterprises—to the Stern Business School’s graduating class, this May 20th:
“We (GE) will localize” because “a localization strategy can’t be shut down by protectionist politics.
“We will produce for the US in the US, but our exports may decline. At the same time, we will localize production in big end-use markets like Saudi Arabia. And countries with effective export banks, like Canada, will be more attractive for investment.”
Welcome to the ’30s, indeed, right up to Jeff’s early childhood in Ohio.
A corporate vision of “branch-plant” agents negotiating with “import substitution” state bankers, probably, will keep General Electric in business. It survived in that political swamp in the ’50s and ’60s. However, there are societal consequences when the giants of business, and entertainers like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are taken seriously when saying: “Let’s go back.”
And Harvard’s famous soft power scholar Joseph Nye can rip Trump apart for his sloppy attacks on the NATO alliance without uttering a passing reference to Trump’s rabid protectionist attacks on longstanding as well as recently negotiated free trade agreements. Nye apparently is now more exercised about maintaining the status quo in NATO than championing better commercial relations as soft power’s way to advance US influence without always putting ever more weapons and Americans on their soil.
Retrenchment is back at the highest levels of free trade government.
The leaders of Canada and the United States, two immensely popular politicians, won’t risk a pinch of their popularity to defend and sell publicly the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade and investment agreement to reduce barriers within 40% of the world’s economy. A trade deal that would consolidate, if ratified—and undermined, if not ratified—the West’s presence and credibility in Japan and in emerging markets that, incidentally, have only one superpower alternative: China.
Here’s the G7’s battle cry over the signatures of Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau in the May G7 Summit Communique
“The signing of the TPP is an important step forward for the establishment of a platform for common trade rules and trade integration across the Asia-Pacific region, and we encourage each TPP signatory to complete its domestic process.”
The signatories are encouraged, whoever they are.
Classic passive abstractions coined by articulate bureaucrats to help passive leaders. Trudeau’s Liberal movement remains free to keep “studying” the agreement, and Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can reject their TPP, along with Donald Trump. American Democrats and Republicans now promise only US trade growth, not US eadership to fight protectionists in the West and globally.
The spin amongst liberal sophisticates in Washington and Ottawa is that the TPP, let alone NAFTA, cannot be championed in the US presidential election. Along with carbon taxes and entitlement reform, free trade is best done but not discussed. TPP is something lame legislators might do later this year so long as other issues and personalities dominate voter passions.
It’s easy to imagine Republican Senators voting for the TPP and, gleefully, against Trump. It’s conceivable that President-elect Clinton would happily look the other way as Democrat Senators and Obama ratified the TPP shortly after the election. So long as all smart people keep quiet for now.
So here we are: free trade, arguably the greatest liberal project of the last century, must now proceed by stealth.
Popular government by the people will prevail as good government for the people. The music will be turned down but it still will be played. Only the glorious open concerts will be a thing of the past.