The Impact of Trade Policy Decisions on Social Justice

The Impact of Trade Policy Decisions on Social Justice, Res Publica, Volume 27, Issue 1 (2021), pp. 59-76:

Some recent trade decisions, such as the U.S.’s imposition of protectionist measures against China, have attracted fervent popular support as well as outrage. Critics of these trade policies argue that they fail to promote society’s own interests. This paper catalogues the different ways that trade decisions can hinder and facilitate a society’s pursuit of social justice. I adopt a simple description of trade liberalization: a society forgoes the use of certain policy options (such as tariffs), in order to pursue greater economic productivity through increased trade flows. Using this simple descriptive account, the paper identifies two pathways for a society’s trade policies to shape its pursuit of social justice. First, greater economic productivity improves a society’s capacities to realize justice, especially distributive justice. I will argue that the value of greater economic capacities depends upon the society’s existing capacities and its inclinations to pursue justice. When a society has greater capacities and fails to extend their benefits to its worse off citizens, these citizens have more serious grounds for complaint. Second, a society forgoes certain policy options when it liberalizes trade, and some of these options may be instrumentally valuable or even necessary for the society’s pursuit of justice. I will argue that, under non-ideal conditions, it can be desirable for a society to limit its own policy space so it cannot feasibly select policies that are unjust. Certain protectionist policies have taken on the expressive meaning that some groups are inferior in social and moral status.

This paper is the subject of a Critical Exchange, hosted by CRITIQUE (Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought at Edinburgh University):