According to a recent poll, 80% of Americans think it their patriotic duty to give preference to American-made products. But “Buy American” is wholly un-American in both its economics and its philosophy.
America’s distinction among all the nations of the world is that it enshrined political and economic freedom. Although we have departed greatly from our original laissez-faire principles, to the whole world America still symbolizes capitalism. Americanism means understanding that a free market, domestically and internationally, is the only path to general prosperity.
International trade is not mortal combat but a form of cooperation, a means of expanding worldwide production. The benefits of international trade flow to both trading partners, even when one of the countries is more efficient across the board. This is the “Law of Comparative Advantage,” covered in every economics textbook. Free trade does not destroy but creates employment.
The lucrative workings of free markets do not depend upon lines drawn on a map. The economic advantages of international commerce are the same as those of interstate, intercity, and crosstown commerce. And if we kept crosstown trade accounts, the “trade deficits” that would appear would be as meaningless as are our international “trade deficits.” Fact confirms theory: the U.S. ran a trade “deficit” practically every year of the nineteenth century, the time of our most rapid economic progress.
Philosophically, Americanism means individualism. Individualism holds that one’s personal identity, moral worth, and inalienable rights belong to one as an individual, not as a member of a particular race, class, nation, or other collective.
But collectivism is the premise of “Buy American.” In purchasing goods, we are expected to view ourselves and the sellers not as individuals, but as units of a nation. We are expected to accept lower quality or more expensive goods in the name of alleged benefits to the national collective.
Most “Buy American” advocates are motivated by misplaced patriotism. But for some the motive is a collectivist hostility towards foreigners. This xenophobic attitude is thoroughly un-American; it is plain bigotry.
Giving preference to American-made products over German or Japanese products is the same injustice as giving preference to products made by whites over those made by blacks. Economic nationalism, like racism, means judging men and their products by the group from which they come, not by merit.
Collectivism reflects the notion that life is “a zero sum game,” that we live in a dog-eat-dog world, where one man’s gain is another man’s loss. On this premise, everyone has to cling to his own herd and fight all the other herds for a share of a fixed, static, supply of goods. And that is exactly the premise of the “Buy American” campaign. “It’s Japan or us,” is the implication. If Japan is getting richer, then we must be getting poorer.
But individualism recognizes that wealth is produced, not merely appropriated, and that man’s rise from the cave to the skyscraper demonstrates that life is not a zero-sum game — not where men are free to seek progress.
Accordingly, individualism holds that the interests of men do not conflict — provided we are speaking of self-supporting individuals who pay for what they get. Where there is free trade, the exchange of value for value, one man’s gain is another man’s gain.
The same harmony of men’s interests applies in the international arena. One nation’s enrichment raises the standard of living of all other nations with which it trades. Which nation adds more to your standard of living: Japan or Bangladesh? And how would you fare if Japan were suddenly reduced to the economic level of Bangladesh?
The patriotic advocates of buying American would be shocked to learn that the economic theory underlying their viewpoint is Marxism. In describing the influx of Japanese products and investment, they don’t use the Marxist terminology of “imperialism” and “exploitation,” but the basic idea is the same: capitalistic acts are destructive and free markets will impoverish you. It’s the same anti-capitalist nonsense whether it is used by leftists to attack the United States for its commerce with Latin America or by supposed patriots to attack Japan for its commerce with the United States.
Contrary to Marxism, one does not benefit from the poverty or incompetence of others. It is in your interest that other men — in every country — be smart, ambitious, and productive, not stupid, lazy, or incompetent. Would you be better off if Thomas Edison had been dim-witted? Nothing is changed if we substitute a Japanese inventor for Edison.
More and better production is good for all men, everywhere. What’s good for Toyota is good for America. That’s individualism, and that’s Americanism.
Government interference with free trade is un-American. Sacrificing one’s standard of living in order to subsidize inefficient domestic producers is un-American. The tribal fear of foreigners is un-American. Resentment at others’ success is un-American.
A patriotic American acts as a capitalist and an individualist: he buys the best, wherever it may be found.
Originally published in Capitalism Magazine in 1992.