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Protecting the Chief Business of the American People

Conversations about “trade” must encompass the national interest, broadly drawn, rather than a narrow set of economic parameters.

Credit: Everett Collection

You have probably been told that “the business of America is business.” You might even believe it. But Calvin Coolidge didn’t say it. No, what he said to the American Society of  Newspaper Editors in 1925 was, “After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” Silent Cal said more words, because he couldn’t have said fewer. Those are two different statements, similar as they might appear at first glance. And we must be able to make the distinction. 

The difference between the pithy abstracted line, an aphorism, and the qualified and specific observation lies at the heart of economic policy debates today. Showing my colors, let me suggest that even the circumstances of the above quotes as quotes offer an example for policymakers to consider: One is a convenient misquotation, made up; the other is the real and historical, the concrete, and often misremembered. The American right is divided on economic questions between populist counter-elites who wish to represent the American people—and to use politics to protect their ability to produce, buy, sell, invest, and prosper in the world—and a party establishment ideologically committed to airy claims, including “the business of America is business.” 


This ambivalence and ambiguity is perhaps nowhere as apparent as in talk of trade. 

The problem with “the business of America is business” is a lack of definitions. America? The state? The collective? Apparently not Americans. And business? What makes that up? Who is to say? Businesses, I suppose. In any case, the real quote on the other hand gives us first a note of qualification—the chief business—and then a particular object for our preposition, in “of the American people.” Even business gets an explanation: it is activities the American people do with an end to prosperity. Thus, the suggestion from Coolidge here is neither that the American nation is defined by commercialism, nor that the American state should be deferential to corporate interests. It might, however, be a suggestion that an American president thought that part of his job was to protect the economic standing of Americans and their particular business enterprises on the world stage. 

After years of economic liberalization under Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats—as well as their new Federal Reserve system—the Republicans restored a protective tariff when, led by Warren Harding, they returned to power in 1921. It bears remembering that as president from 1923–1929, Calvin Coolidge is famous for having done as little as he said; Harding’s trade measures continued to obtain. That sets all of the above even further into context: This was a protectionist president who was concerned with the prosperity and business activity of the American people. That was the historical role of the Republican party, after all: to uphold the American System of economic developmentalism, a core feature of which was a protective tariff. 

There has been much renewed discussion of tariffs and protectionism in recent weeks, especially in the Wall Street Journal, no doubt as much prompted by former President Donald Trump’s positive poll figures as by former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s new book, No Trade Is Free. “Trump’s Trade War Was a Loser” said Phil Gramm and Donald J. Boudreaux. Then the next week, from Lighthizer, “In Defense of the Trump Trade Policy.” The same day, the Journal published former Senator Pat Toomey’s negative review of Lighthizer’s book. And Monday, lest the USTR have the last word, another letter from Gramm and Boudreaux. This discourse reveals a degree of incommensurability, for while both sides are ostensibly discussing a thing called trade and the policy surrounding it, what and how they measure or assess successful policy are entirely different. 

Indeed, it is the same difference as illustrated by the Coolidge quote, both the real and imaginary. Like “the business of America is business,” free traderism is a model, an ideological statement of how the world ought to be—“business” or “trade” abstracted from specifics or political context. It can guarantee increased efficiency, with certain related numbers going up, but declines to acknowledge that some industries are better than others, or the difference between bad jobs and good. It cannot guarantee that improvements in one area make up for losses and destruction elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, parallel to Cal’s actual description of the American people, protectionism is not a model, but an active intervention in a dynamic situation, and a political response to historical circumstances. Trade, and a particular tariff, is a political calculus; it is a prudential question. There is no “trade” in Plato’s realm of forms; there is particular trade between particular parties and particular nations at a particular point in time. 

Even when differences are obvious, the subtle distinctions are often the ones that matter most. They are where there might be a genuine point of opportunity for persuasion. Except for the few true believers in a post-national future—the distinction between global governance and corporate neofeudal scenarios is increasingly one without a difference—even the most ardent free trader will, eventually, acknowledge that some considerations must take precedence to growth for growth’s or efficiency for efficiency’s sake. National interest, in national security terms, trumps ideological purity. 

So there is the opportunity: We share a concern for the national interest, populist protectionists and reflexive free traders alike. And there is the risk, too: that we constrain ourselves only to the language of security and defense. For when we consider the American people’s profound concern with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world, the national interest is so much more. 


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