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The word “protectionism” is effectively treated like a swear word by most economists and pundits. They paint a picture of a protectionist as an economic terrorist with a suicide vest packed with regulations instead of explosives.
Whatever protectionism used to mean, now it means anyone who opposes free trade agreements like the TPP. It’s become a completely political word. Whether or not something is labelled “protectionism” depends on what you want to protect.
If you want to protect your country’s right to pass environmental laws without being sued by an oil company for hurting their profits, you’re a protectionist. But if you want to protect the profits of the pharmaceutical industry by protecting their patents and making medicine more expensive, you’re an anti-protectionist.
If you want to protect your privacy by keeping sensitive data in Canada to protect it from foreign spy agencies, you’re a protectionist. But if you want to protect companies like Monsanto from health and safety regulations, you’re an anti-protectionist. A helpful rule of thumb is: if it protects the vulnerable, it’s harmful protectionism. If it protects entrenched, powerful interests, it’s enlightened anti-protectionism.
And now that Donald Trump is pretending he wants to renegotiate trade deals if he’s elected president, protectionism is being lumped in with nationalist racism. Which shows how desperate free trade boosters are to defend the indefensible. For the record, I oppose the TPP, and I’m not racist. Unless you can be racist against Australian backpackers. That’s a wall I will help build.