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Brown’s Bad History

Yesterday, Gordon Brown addressed a joint meeting of Congress. Did you know? Exactly. This is the least significant visit to the United States by the least significant Prime Minister in post-war history, and one of the most unpopular to boot.  Say what you will about Brown — and I do — this is sad stuff.

My take on his speech is up at the Heritage Foundation’s Foundry blog. In short, it was the speech he was expected to give, far better than Obama on the Special Relationship, stout but insubstantial on security, and globalist and incoherent on the economy.  But, as is often the case when politicians turn to history, Brown’s vision of American economic policy post-1945 was askew, and in ways that reveal what he intends in his vaunted “Global New Deal.”

According to Brown, U.S. visionaries responded to the Great Depression, and then World War II, by producing a bold plan for global economic cooperation, one based on shared prosperity.  That is entirely right.  But at the root of that plan was what became the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the GATT, the basis for today’s WTO.  True, there was also the IMF, a stabilization board in an era of fixed currencies, and the World Bank, a reconstruction fund for a highly developed area — Western Europe — that had serious but temporary problems.

But it was GATT that was tasked with the most important and enduring duty: reducing the protectionism that American leaders saw as central to the deepening of the Depression and to the rise of the Nazis.  And that was a two-fold diagnosis: Protectionism was economically destructive, and centralized control of economies was profoundly illiberal.  Reducing protectionism was a contribution both to economic good sense and liberal government, in a world composed of sovereign, democratic, capitalist, nation-states.

How different this is from Brown’s vision.  Simultaneously, he attacks protectionism, praises government intervention to “shape global markets to meet the needs of the people,” and argues for the creation of global institutions to restrain the ability of nations to, for instance, create “tax havens” by shrinking government.  This is a vision that, except for the rejection of protectionism, has nothing in common with the U.S. leaders he praises.

When they saw tariffs, they worried about the overbearing, destructive state.  They believed that a state big and willful enough to control trade would necessarily be illiberal.  When he sees tariffs, he worries that the state is not large enough, and that it should be supplemented and controlled by global governance.  He believes that a big and willful state will magically refrain from controlling trade, and will remain safely liberal.

This is not one of those arguments about the differences between Victorian liberalism and modern liberalism.  The post-1945 generation, like Brown, were modern, big-state liberals.  But those liberals had seen what all out government control wrought, and while they wanted more of it than conservatives wished, they were indeed right, and wise, to turn away from their early protectionist leanings and the all-controlling state on which it rested.  That way, they realized, lay economic and political disaster of the most illiberal kind.  The pity is that today, when the state is far, far larger than it was in the late 1940s, liberals do not have the wisdom of their ancestors.


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