As a strong supporter of protectionism I can be expected to be a sympathetic reader of this interesting book from nearly two decades ago. Indeed the core concept of this book of using protectionism to improve "economy, environment and equity"(p125) is for me very close to home.
However in reading this book, I am reminded what a perilous undertaking it is for a country to set out upon a protectionist course, and why many economists are so wary of it. Free trade, for all it's faults, of which I am more ready than most to point out, is at least a coherent destination and organising principle for any countries economy. Even if your economic ship makes a few diversionary port calls and is blown off course a few times, having free trade as a final destination will sort and dictate many of your economic issues and decision making systems. Issues at the heart of economics such as the division of labour and claims on money and resources inherently generate conflict, which free markets resolve in a disinterested, impersonal and automatic way. If you take away this system, beware of the consequences. Once you abandon free trade as your nominal destination, you can easily become adrift in a sea of infinite contestable possibilities.
Oscar Wilde once commented than he was put off socialism because "it took up too many evenings". In a related theme I once watched a documentary about a 1970's commune where a number of the ex-members all commented disparagingly about the volume of discussion and debate and conflict generated by the basic economic issue of who should do what within the commune. In the everyday outside world, the capitalist market 'worked out' what jobs were required to be done by the population for the population, and each individual was faced with a disinterested 'job market', and left to compete to pursue their own best options. In a commune this automation was removed, and it was now someone's or some group's role to allocate the tasks required to satisfy the needs of the communes' population. The silent and sometimes cruelly coercive nature of the invisible hand was not completely wiped away, but partly replaced by an all too visible one, being the self appointed 'leadership'. Human nature being what it is, understandably the communes found they contained an abundance of natural leaders and strategic thinkers, alongside a dearth of cleaners and labourers.
The point I am trying to make is that once you leave the organising rules of free trade, you can be in danger of transforming your country into a giant version of this particular commune dynamic. Those on the left may warm to this idea of a giant commune, but the danger is that, like the communes, which did not always produce the harmony they envisaged, you are opening up the economic and political system to an avalanche of debate and interest group jostling. And again, human nature being what it is, you will find many who wish to move up a notch, and few who will want to remain on the lowest level if they can help it.
This book advocates protectionism, which is great, but it does so in a worryingly obtuse way. It is hard to disagree with many of the issues and objectives the authors wish protectionism to tackle. Indeed now, 19 years later, the authors must be commended for noting international economic issues which have mostly become even more potent and central. But without more strict guiding principles regarding what protectionist policies should effect and where they should leave well alone, I would worry about presenting such a Pandora's box to a disgruntled, entitlement ethos society such as ours. In their intentions there are too many 'oughts' and 'shoulds', each of which needs subjective input and disinterested decision makers to interpret and enforce. To have simple one dimensional remits such as to increase local supply of currently imported goods, without any counter balancing appreciation or recognition of the scale and scope required to support efficient local production, is a serious omission. The authors have correctly identified what I agree to be the strong potential of protectionism to kill a number of economic birds with one stone, but in my opinion they have left their recommendations too open ended, and left out any precautionary constraints which would be needed to protect a level of basic economic efficiency which plays such a huge role in making us in the West so rich and productive compared to the past.