Every economist, every banker and every politician gifted with a couple of brain cells agrees; the worst, the very worst, thing that nations can do during recession is to implement protectionist policies. It's counter-intuitive, but our best interests are served by keeping production workers in Shanghai in work by buying their goods. The Shanghai middle class will flourish, and buy Scotch whisky and Burberry scarves.
Globalisation, and the dismantling of tariffs and trade barriers, has done more to alleviate global poverty than decades of hand-wringing and benefit gigs. The number of people living on less than $1,000 a year has dropped from 50% of the world's population in the 1970s to 17% today. Those living on the World Bank's danger line of $1 a day has dropped to less than 5% of the world's population.
But politicians have always been dangerous fools.
Brown's call for 'British jobs for British workers' was intended to appeal to a white working class vote deserting Labour for the BNP, but appears on the placards of unemployed welders lobbying for refinery building jobs in Lincolnshire. Hilary Benn is urging us to buy British food, and is planning a crackdown to expose wicked foreign food not clearly labelled as such.
More seriously, Obama's $820bn stimulus package includes a ban on imports of steel for US construction projects. Other tariffs on imported goods may follow in the wake of his call to 'buy American'.
Politicians will erect tariffs and trade barriers for the benefit of their poll ratings, not for the good of their economies. And this will backfire as their trading partners retaliate by imposing their own tariffs; if Brown imposes a 50% import tax on goods from Shanghai, they will impose a 50% import tax on Scotch whisky. We all lose.
Politicians are not only short-termist but vain and hubristic, and it is these dangerous qualities that will encourage the drift into protectionism. Not one, not even the sainted Obama, has shown the quality of leadership needed to reject protectionism. And Brown, the weakest, most pusillanimous and vacillating tumbleweed of them all, will scrabble and grasp for every straw in this, the final phase of his disastrous political career.