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“Go West (or East), Young Man (Young Woman)!”

11 February, 2009
"Immigration Officer at London, Heathrow"  BBC Photo

"Immigration Officer at London, Heathrow" BBC Photo

Amidst the latest understandable concerns about our global economic meltdown, we’re hearing from some politicians the need to “protect our own”.  As Gordon Brown once put it, “British jobs for British workers.”  At one obvious level this makes complete sense — all the more if, say, I was made redundant or in a “downsize” and later learnt that my job was given to a foreign worker.  Surely, we’d be hardhearted if we simply say to workers, “Well, if you were willing to take cuts in pay and would work even longer hours, you’d have no reason to fear!”  Most of the time it really isn’t as simple as this. I know we may differ in our opinions concerning trade unions and the degrees to which they lobby to protect their members, but there is a basic reasonableness to their efforts.

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Moreover, there is a social (even moral) obligation to help fellow citizens find work where this is possible.   Families are really affected, lives are sometimes hurt and whole communities are damaged.  So, at this simple level protectionism seems very reasonable.

On the other hand, other forms of protectionism (what we’re beginning to hear coming from a few politicians in the E.U., the USA and here in the UK) start to sound problematic.  When proposed measures call for severe, even draconian, foreign trade restrictions and immigration restrictions, something doesn’t sound right.

When we insist on buying only British or only shop for “made in the USA” products do we end up causing a host of problems?  Personally, I do try and shop for goods made in the UK — because I am thankful to live in the UK and want to do what I can as a consumer that is, in some way, “neighbourly”.  The problem, I discover, is that limiting purchases only to what’s made in your home country is just about impossible.

And there may be a knock on effect if putting a choke hold on inter-market trading comes into place. Retaliatory trade restriction measures come immediately to mind.  “You won’t import our stuff, well then, we won’t buy your export goods!”  Moreover, with so much foreign capital (read China and India) keeping afloat European and American banks, do politicians really want to put a squeeze on global trade and goods?  To state things poorly: do we want to anger the very nations that are bailing us out?  Sure, I guess there are lots of qualifications we can rightly request.

There’s another implication to all of this; and it is one of the more alarming features of extreme protectionism. When borders start closing and when foreign workers (both highly educated professionals and migrant workers) are prevented from entering and working (not simply claiming social benefits for nothing), then countries could be in danger of shooting themselves in the foot.  There are some good historical precedents to suggest that often foreign workers and foreign ‘intellectual capital’ boost economic output and innovations.

Once again, Thomas Freidman puts his finger on the problem.  See \”The Open Door Bailout\”

There is no easy or obvious pattern to follow in this crisis.  What we really do need to encourge are the efforts of our leaders to make decisions that strive for moral justice and economic prudence.  Unquestionably, these virtues are hard to locate when in the midst of popular frustration and alarm.   “Reasonable” pragmatics are not inherently wrong.  The danger comes when knee-jerk reactions  start kicking out wisdom and lessons learnt from history.

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One Comment
  1. I agree. We’re such creatures of extremes when a balanced approach is more often than not required… Choosing to support local communities in our buying choices has many benefits. Extreme forms of protectionism are often reactionary and selfish.

    But we often don’t seem to like the concept of ‘balance’, we prefer to legislate for everything, and apply a principle rigidly, without thinking and to the nth degree… Why do you think this is?

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