Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
[Excerpted from Pat Buchanan's Old Right Opposed
Tariffs, April 24, 1996]
What kind of conservative is Pat Buchanan? Supporters and
opponents say that he's bringing back an older tradition, which
rejects the cosmopolitanism of the National Review generation, and
hearkens back to the "isolationism" and America First
movement of the 30s and 40s.
Mr. Buchanan doesn't dispute this, and why should he? The Old
Right, though widely misunderstood, was a principled band of
intellectuals and activists, many of them libertarians, who fought the
"industrial regimentation" of the New Deal, and were the
first to note that, in America, statism and corporativism are
Unfortunately, despite an otherwise appealing platform, Mr.
Buchanan doesn't represent Old Right economic ideals. These writers
ardently defended capitalism, including big business and corporations,
celebrated the profit motive, and took a strict laissez-faire attitude
toward international trade. They loathed tariffs, and saw
protectionism as a species of socialist planning.
Frank Chodorov was a central intellectual figure on the Right
from the 1920s to the 1950s, editing the early Freeman magazine and
founding Human Events and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. A
prolific writer, Chodorov guided two generations of students and
activists to the literature of liberty, and urged no compromise with
the central state. He proudly wore the label "isolationist"
and, like Mr. Buchanan today, saw entry into the two world wars as a
mistake because they bolstered militarism and big government in
America. To Chodorov, isolationism was "not a political policy,"
but the proper and "natural attitude." People are rightly
concerned with family and neighbors, he said, not foreign peoples and
But, as he made clear, Chodorov's isolationism had nothing to
do with international economics. Free trade with other nations is part
of the normal working of the economy, which stems from being concerned
with the well being of our families. Chodorov was aghast and angered
when some people tried to make "America First" mean "Buy
American": that is, "economic, rather than political,
Economic isolationism -- tariffs, quotas, embargoes, and
general governmental interference with international trade--is an
irritant that can well lead to war," he wrote. "To build a
trade wall around a country is to invite reprisals," and
generates "misunderstanding and mistrust." To Chodorov, "Free
trade is natural, protectionism is political." T. Flynn, the
great journalist and leader of the America First Committee, agreed
with Chodorov. "The last seventy years of American history,"
he wrote in 1944, "have been a struggle between the ideal of free
enterprise and the determination to restrain and regiment it."
Business "comprises the whole immense web of producing and
distributing enterprises," but tragically, "some men, for
various reasons, set out to interfere in the natural workings of this
Flynn condemns domestic industrial planning because it leads
to trade barriers. "The first condition of a planned economy is
that it shall be a closed economy," he wrote. That's why
socialists want "an impenetrable wall around" the nation, "keeping
out everybody and every kind of goods and striving for a complete
self-sufficiency. Of course, this is not practical anywhere.
Though a nationalist, Flynn understood the difference between
caring about one's country first and trade restriction, which he saw
as having a socialist and fascist pedigree. The link between
protection and planning, he pointed out, was not disputed ì
even on the left. To Stuart Chase, the New Dealer who coined the term,
"national planning and economic nationalism must go together or
not at all.
Flynn's view, toughened with a right-wing anarchist edge, was
also that of Albert Jay Nock, the social critic who inspired several
generations with his biting attacks on collectivism, egalitarianism,
and modernity. As a writer for Harper's, he helped make anti-statism
the political center of pre-war American conservatism.
He too was against entering any foreign war, and could thus
be fairly described as an "isolationist." But protectionist?
"We all now know pretty well," he wrote in 1935, "that
the primary reason for a tariff is that it enables the exploitation of
the domestic consumer by a process indistinguishable from sheer
"By putting a tariff against the importation, say, of
wool, the State permits the domestic wool-producing interests to levy
a tax upon consumers of wool to the amount of the excess in price over
the price determined by supply and demand in a free competitive
market. These interests give the consumer nothing in return for the
tax; the State gives them as beneficiaries, the privilege of levying
it, and they accordingly do so."<p></p> Felix Morley
was more of a traditionalist. He won the hearts of conservatives by
defecting as editor of the Washington Post and later becoming editor
of Human Events, as well as the author of brilliant books on
federalism and foreign policy. He was an America Firster, an
isolationist, and a right-wing populist to boot.
But when it came to free enterprise, there was no compromise:
it must not stop at the border. "Unrestricted competition is
essential to economic freedom," he wrote. "Indeed, it can be
said that competition is freedom, as distinct from the personal
attribute of liberty." "It follows that in an advancing
civilization the objective with regard to the market will always be
the removal of restrictions to trade." This is why Morley doubted
that businessmen would be the best defenders of the market. They too
often seek to protect themselves from competition in the name of free
enterprise. "Time and again," he wrote, "those who
argued for competition have, in practice, leaned toward monopolistic
operations. Advocates of the free market have worked openly and
surreptitiously for high tariffs and other governmental favors."
As an example, he cites the industrial protectionism of the 19th
century that Mr. Buchanan now praises.
The preeminent economic theorist of the Old Right was Henry
Hazlitt. Kicked out of The Nation because he opposed FDR's National
Recovery Act, he was made editor of The American Mercury by H.L.
Mencken. During the heyday of Keynesianism, Hazlitt thrilled the
free-market right with his editorials in Newsweek. He was also second
to none in his hatred of all forms of government intervention,
including protectionism and economic nationalism.
Hazlitt's Economics In One Lesson, still in print after fifty
years, devotes two chapters to the tissue of fallacies that is the
case for protectionism and subsidized exports. As Hazlitt
demonstrates, "The tariff--though it may increase wages above
what they would have been in the protected industries--must on net
balance, when all occupations are considered, reduce real wages."
As a friend of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. von Hayek, however, Hazlitt
might be considered one of "those damned Austrian economists"
that Mr. Buchanan warns us against reading.
There were Old Rightists who worried about free international
trade, but not on Buchananite grounds. Essayist Garet Garrett came to
favor closed borders because he worried about the war potential of
forcing foreign consumers to buy American products, another policy Mr.
Buchanan favors. At the same time, big business never had a greater
champion than Garrett. A biographer rightly called him "Profit's
Prophet." Whatever can be said of Mr. Buchanan's trade theories,
they are not those of the Old Right. Their intellectual legacy is more
likely British mercantilism, and that's one import we can do without.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises
Institute in Auburn, Alabama.