Is Protectionism inherently left wing?

Many libertarians and conservatives have always criticised protectionism as a left wing economic policy with a Socialist background. However, many people on the right consider free trade to be the left-wing counterpart of protectionism. Various individuals who adhere to far-right wing ideologies look at free trade as a form of breaking down borders and achieving one step closer to a Marxist world government. Globalism is eyed with suspicion and distaste because it is seen as a Marxist tactic of decreasing the power of Western countries in order to bring forth this dystopian Marxist world. For these far-right individuals, protectionism is the only method of securing the power of one’s nation and upholding one’s culture. Yes, protectionism, just like free trade, is supported by individuals from both the left and right wing.

Firstly, it is important to look at what exactly protectionism is. The word itself occupies a variety of definitions, with some definitions even rendering particular Libertarians protectionist. According to some, protectionism constitutes any form of barrier that seeks to prevent the free inflow and outflow of goods, services, capital and labour between countries. Through this perspective, even immigration restrictions are protectionist. This results in a large portion of the right wing being labelled “protectionist” by the left, even some Libertarians, such as those who follow the ideas of Hans Herman Hoppe on immigration. Another definition excludes the movement of labour between countries, and only considers restrictions on goods, services and capital. This is a more right-wing definition of protectionism.

Protectionism and free trade are present in both the left and the right, as mentioned earlier. Indeed, many leftists advocate protectionism, the most prominent contemporary example being Bernie Sanders, who propagated an anti-free trade rhetoric akin to that of Donald Trump. At the same time, many leftists promote free trade, such as Keynesians like Paul Krugman. In the right wing, Libertarians and some conservatives support free trade, while other ideologies located more to the right, including some conservatives, support some form of protectionism. In Australia for example, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation advocates a particular level of protectionism, and in America, Donald Trump effectively courted the white working class especially in the “Rustbelt states” due to his protectionist stances.

So yes, protectionism and free trade are present in both right and left. A Libertarian calling a fellow right-winger a leftist simply because the latter supports protectionism is an act riddled with delusion. Similarly, a right-winger calling a Libertarian a leftist simply because he supports free trade is also a delusional act. What matters most is the intention behind the support for protectionism. Protectionism manifests itself through nationalism when considering its right-wing proponents, while it takes a more Socialist form when looking at its left-wing supporters.

For a right-winger, protectionism is a legitimate policy if it’s used in a nationalistic method. For example, a traditionalist may support protectionism in order to make the nation more powerful (whether or not it will succeed is a topic for another time). During the Colonial era, this culminated in Mercantilism, a form of capitalism intertwined with nationalism that involved exceeding a country’s net exports over net imports in order to maximise what was thought to be its true source of power, the amount of gold it had in comparison to others. This clearly has a nationalist ring to it, as it is considered imperative to maximise exports and minimise imports, while protecting its manufacturers and traders, in order to ensure a country’s growth in power. This is what Donald Trump has been accused of by both the right and left wing due to his protectionist policies. In contrast, Bernie Sanders portrays a different principle in his support of protectionism. His protectionist policies are based on socialist principles instead of more nationalist foundations, such as an intention to provide more wealth to people in America’s manufacturing industry instead of increasing the power of America itself over the long term. Both Trump and Bernie used US jobs as a foundation to their protectionist stances, but the former had a more nationalistic and mercantilist stance by emphasising China’s growth in power and threat to the United States.

Regional differences must also be considered when discussing this concept. In mainland Europe, for instance, the term “right wing” includes individuals and parties that promote some form of protectionist policy. Recall Marine le Pen’s famous call for “smart protectionism” during a speech she gave in the European Parliament criticising President Hollande and Angela Merkel. In Anglo countries, this distinction is different when considering the fact that anyone from any side of the spectrum could support either protectionism or free trade.

Protectionism is present in both sides of the political spectrum. What differentiates the manifestation of protectionism between the right and the left is based on the intention of advocating protectionism: either through Socialist or Nationalist motivations. For many individuals who support unfettered free trade, there seems to be a growing sentiment of protectionism in the Western world. However, this should not be mistaken with a growing support for Socialism, as nationalistic and patriotic attitudes are the forces fuelling this sentiment. Brexit in Britain and the election of Pauline Hanson to the Australian Senate, along with the growing influence of right wing parties in Europe, makes this clear and concise. On a final note, if protectionism does include barriers on the movement of people, then it is necessary because an open-borders-inspired free trade policy is detrimental to national security and prosperity. But that’s for another time.