Is free trade a trolley problem?

This is my first post-election post and while I do feel like I’ll have plenty to talk about down the line, for now I want to touch on a single thought that jumped into my head.

We understand that part of Trump’s appeal was that he is anti-free trade. He wants to undo free trade agreements like NAFTA, TPP etc.

(I’ll note here that I generally favor free trade though I don’t have particularly thought out reasons for this. I generally like simpler rule sets for things and nothing is simpler than “free.”)

Let’s also revisit the moral thought experiment called the trolley problem. Philosopher Joshua Greene describes this in his book “Moral Tribes”



A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big to stop the trolley and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death?

Fundamentally, the trolley problem asks whether it is all right to sacrifice one person to save five, or, more broadly, whether the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few.

The complaint from a subset of Trump voters is that free trade agreements took their jobs away. This New Yorker article examines some of the details of all this.

“…economists agree almost unanimously that free trade boosts a nation’s overall welfare. In March, 2012, when the University of Chicago Booth School of Business polled a panel of economic experts, fifty-six per cent agreed and another twenty-nine per cent strongly agreed that “Freer trade improves productive efficiency and offers consumers better choices, and in the long run these gains are much larger than any effects on employment.” But even within the precincts of orthodox trade theory (which is not, I am told, the whole of economics), free trade is acknowledged to have a downside, too. In June, 2012, half of the same panel of experts agreed and another thirty-three percent strongly agreed that “Some Americans who work in the production of competing goods, such as clothing and furniture, are made worse off by trade with China.” The professional consensus among economists, in other words, isn’t that free trade helps everyone; it’s that free trade so benefits the country as a whole that the government should find it easy to compensate the subset of citizens hurt by it—those who lose their jobs because workers abroad displace them.”

So, free trade is good for society as a whole, but there’s definitely a group that it screws. If no meaningful help is offered to people (and little is according to the article and others I’ve read) it should be no surprise that they will demand change.

What intrigues me here is that this election seems to drag a boring thought experiment out of the halls of academia and into the real world. The trolley problem asks about the morality of sacrificing the welfare of a few for the welfare of many. And that’s exactly what we face with the issue of free trade.

Of course, it’s more complex than that. How do we measure these benefits to larger society or these deficits to smaller groups? How do we measure economic pain? Merely in dollars and cents? Or do we try to factor in ethereal elements like dignity, pride and self-worth and even unintended consequences? Some liberals are doubtless now feeling that if free trade means that the people you sacrifice then vote in Donald Trump, it’s not worth it.

(Another point to keep in mind here: Democrats did have an anti-free trade candidate, Bernie Sanders, and there’s a lot of evidence that he could have bested Trump.)

On a final tangent, in a later paragraph, the New Yorker article argues that merely throwing money at Americans screwed by free trade doesn’t solve the problem.

Even if a welfare program like the Trade Readjustment Allowance were amped up, it’s not likely that this population would become meek and grateful. They’re aware that the socioeconomic élite—lawyers, financiers, and consultants—profited mightily from the economic changes by which they were dispossessed over the past couple of decades, and I suspect that they don’t want to be the objects of such people’s charity. They want their dignity back. They want to be what they once were: workers, an independent source of economic value, ambivalently regarded by and even somewhat menacing to the upper class.


This struck me as it’s very similar something I wrote many months ago in a post entitled “Explaining the Appeal of Donald Trump.”

The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities.

Had Hillary Clinton read my blog post and integrated its wisdom, I suspect she would be President right now.

  1. No Comments