The hysterical reaction to Pat Buchanan’s presidential bid is highly revealing. It says little about Buchanan but much about his critics. There is much in Buchanan’s platform to object to, but it plays a small role in understanding the criticism.
Buchanan is, to be sure, a protectionist. He falls for all the hoary protectionist fallacies that have long been exploded. He thinks free trade creates permanent unemployment and depresses wages. He fails to realize that experience is entirely consistent with free-trade theory. His blindness is most obvious when he looks at the development of the United States. He sees tariffs on foreign goods and unprecedented economic progress, and concludes that the first caused the second.
He attaches little or no weight to the fact that the United States has been a large and growing free-trade zone, in which goods and labor could move unmolested by governments. Thus the barriers to external trade have kept the American people from getting even richer than they got. The division of labor is a key to progress, and as Adam Smith wrote, the division of labor is limited by the size of the market.
Moreover, Buchanan doesn’t seem to understand that the economic system is supposed to serve consumers, not producers. The fixation on saving or creating jobs misses the point. It’s goods, not jobs, that we want. Protectionism disrupts the flow of goods to consumers. To quote another old free trader, Henry George, protectionism teaches you to do to yourself in time of peace what an enemy tries to do to you in time of war.
Most of Buchanan’s critics are protectionists also. They may mouth free-trade slogans, but not a one of them would favor the unilateral elimination of America’s trade barriers. Many of them are advocates of “fair trade,” which is a euphemism for protectionism. They favor labor and environmental rules designed to keep people in other countries from better serving American consumers – all in the name of saving jobs and the environment. Thus they are no better than Buchanan on the issue and a lot less candid.
Buchanan and Immigration
Buchanan also errs on the immigration issue. He wants controls on immigration because he fears that the influx of people from other countries imperils American culture, aside from any economic harm it may allegedly do. If he merely opposed welfare-state benefits to immigrants (and everyone else), Buchanan would be on solid ground. But he wants to interfere with people’s right to migrate. He fails to realize that America generated a great culture thanks to freedom. Cultural degeneration can be traced to the corruption of the welfare state, which includes subsidies to an intellectual class that hates freedom for anyone but itself.
Most of Buchanan’s critics also oppose free immigration. While they praise diversity, I don’t recall hearing his loudest opponents urging government to leave immigration to the spontaneous market order and private property. Hypocrisy again rears its ugly head.
Buchanan and Isolationism
Perhaps Buchanan has taken most flak on his foreign policy. The word “isolationist” has been hurled with wild abandon. Someone has quipped that if you oppose bombing foreigners, you’re an isolationist. If that’s the case, let’s wear the badge proudly.
But is it a fair charge against Buchanan? Not really. His book, A Republic, Not An Empire, makes clear that what he favors is not isolationism, but independence. In other words, he thinks the decision to become involved in affairs beyond our shores should be made at home, applying the interests of the American people, unencumbered by standing commitments, whether with NATO or the UN.
He likewise abhors the nuclear commitment the United States has made to many nations. This is a reasonable position, although I would fault him for not being “isolationist” enough. He favored U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, even if he didn’t like how it was fought. Further, he called Harry Truman’s first term “near-great” because Truman continued America’s meddling in Europe. The second term was a failure, he writes, because of Truman’s “no-win” war in Korea. His objection seems to be to the strategy, not the (undeclared) war itself.
That said, Buchanan, to his credit, was a critic of the Gulf war and the war in Yugoslavia, on grounds that they were not in the interest of the American people. But that in itself doesn’t make him an “isolationist.”
Buchanan and World War II
Where Buchanan has been hammered most is on his view of World War II (and to a lesser extent, World War I). Here the hysteria reaches deafening levels. Alan Dershowitz accused Buchanan of being a fascist and a Nazi sympathizer. Donald Trump described him as having a love affair with Hitler. A television viewer might be forgiven for concluding that Buchanan is some kind of monster. But as Thomas Sowell points out, readers of Buchanan’s book will find nothing to justify the smear in the television coverage.
To begin with, Buchanan has nothing good to say about Hitler, unless acknowledging the Fhrer’s designs on the East rather than the West constitutes a compliment. Many before Buchanan have written that Hitler intended to move toward Russia in search of lebensraum and was content to leave Britain and Western Europe alone. Nor is Buchanan the first to declare that, given the existence of Hitler and Stalin, the best thing would have been to let the two brutal dictators beat each other to a bloody pulp. This was the view of then-Senator Harry Truman, who said, “If we see Germany winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany.” Many Americans saw no moral difference between Stalin and Hitler.
Buchanan has sensibly written that Britain blew the opportunity to have the two great dictatorships clash when it extended a guarantee to Poland – a guarantee it would be unable to honor. (As you’ll recall, Poland wasn’t liberated until 1989.) But the British move prompted Hitler to ally himself with Stalin and go west to protect Germany’s rear. That doomed France and the other Western countries and set Poland up to be divided between Germany and Russia.
The British strategy was idiotic, and more than a few people realized it at the time. As Buchanan writes, Britain could have strengthened itself during the Hitler-Stalin contest and then would have been in a stronger position to fight Hitler – had he survived.
Whatever one thinks of this reasoning, it does not make Buchanan a Nazi sympathizer. As for the isolationist charge, he rightly points out that war came to the United States, in the form of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, not because of isolationism, but because of interventionism. The United States, under President Roosevelt, by no means stayed out of Asia before that attack. It was intent on stopping the Japanese empire and had imposed various economic sanctions on it, which in the end (wittingly or unwittingly) provoked the Japanese into attacking the U.S. Pacific fleet. Think what you will of U.S. intervention in Asia, but do not be deluded into thinking it was isolationism.
Reaction to Buchanan
As noted, the truly interesting thing about the Buchanan matter is the reaction to him. It is as if the leading opinion makers in the United States sense that a reconsideration of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s policies is dangerous and must be avoided at all costs. How curious that a calm and reasoned, yet critical, look at these near-universal heroes should set off such a frantic response. What is so feared?
I suspect there is a fear that an honest reappraisal will bring to light for the general public the blunders of men who have been portrayed as near saints. And if that happens, the entire postwar case for big government might begin to unravel. The government’s schools have worked mighty hard to brand each young American with a reverence for FDR and Churchill: They saved us from Hitler; therefore politicians like them are necessary to save us from other threats, and not only from foreign dictators but from rapacious businessmen as well. If we conclude they were wrong in the 1930s and 1940s, we might decide that such “leaders” are more trouble than they’re worth.
With big government either collapsing or showing its impotence all over the world, World War II and the Cold War are about all the statists have left in their propaganda arsenal. Buchanan is no libertarian and not a very good politician either. But he deserves credit for courageously challenging American globalism.