This paper describes two pathways for a society’s trade policies to contribute to its pursuit of justice, starting with greater economic productivity. Here I catalogue the effects from the other pathway. To liberalize trade, a society refrains from the use of policy options that are expected to hinder trade flows and thereby reduce its economic productivity. For a society pursuing social justice, it could be useful or even mandatory for the society to adopt a particular policy that happens to disadvantage foreign producers and/or violate the provisions of a trade agreement. It seems that a society’s trade decisions pose a straightforward conflict between its pursuit of greater economic productivity and its discretion to adopt particular policies required by social justice. This section will elaborate on this argument and introduce complications that arise for a society which is not yet fully just. Under non-ideal conditions, it can be desirable for a society to limit its own policy space in a trade agreement, so it cannot feasibly select policies that exacerbate its own injustices.
I begin by supporting my presumption that trade decisions have another pathway, apart from considerations of economic productivity, for contributing to a society’s pursuit of social justice. Consider the U.S.’s tariffs and other trade restrictions on Chinese exports, which have been imposed in stages since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency. Several justifications have been offered in support of these trade policies. For instance, it has been argued that President Trump’s restrictions on steel and aluminium imports from 2018 to 2019 were necessary to protect U.S. national security interests. If social justice requires national security, then trade restrictions could be necessary for the society’s pursuit of justice, even at significant cost to the society’s economic productivity. While the argument does not plausibly apply to the U.S.’s restrictions on steel and aluminium imports, it could apply in other cases.Footnote 24 This argument describes a straightforward conflict between a society’s pursuit of greater economic productivity and its adoption of policies required by justice. A different argument in favor of tariffs on Chinese exports is that they protect ‘good jobs’ for U.S. workers in manufacturing industries. I will elaborate on this latter argument.
Before doing so, I will raise a preliminary objection. On this objection, it is simply wishful thinking that restricting trade could maintain access to good jobs. Jobs exist in a market economy because human labor supports processes of production and exchange. A protectionist trade policy will undermine the society’s economic productivity, and thus reduce the availability of jobs. If a society wishes to increase the availability of jobs, it should liberalize trade rather than restricting it. However, this objection does not apply if the argument favors restricting trade in order to maintain the availability of ‘good jobs’, rather than jobs as such. I will provide a full elaboration of the features of a good job shortly. One feature of a good job is its wage level. Many societies (both rich and poor) have experienced growing wage inequality in recent years, as a result of trade liberalization (Harrison, McLaren, and McMillan 2011).Footnote 25 As a result of trade liberalization, fewer jobs provide the average (median) wage in a society and more jobs provide either much higher wages or much lower wages. If a good job provides the average wage (or higher) in a society, trade liberalization may threaten the availability of good jobs even as it increases the availability of jobs in general.
Now I can state the general form of the argument. A society has a good reason to restrict trade in order to maintain the availability of good jobs, because this is a requirement of social justice that can take priority over the society’s prosperity. I will elaborate two versions of the argument, with each referring to a different definition of a ‘good job’. A good job could have a single defining feature, namely, that it provides an average wage (or higher). Consider again the aforementioned research on wage inequality, with attention to its implications for workers who had once received average wages. Some of these workers are much better off as a result of trade liberalization, because they have very high wages rather than average wages. Another group is much worse off, because they have low wages rather than average wages.Footnote 26 In the U.S., for instance, there have been estimated job losses in local labor markets for import-competing manufacturing industries as a result of the ‘shock’ of China’s entry into the WTO (Autor, Dorn, and Hanson 2013). If trade restrictions could maintain this group’s access to jobs with average wages, this would help the society to fulfill some of the requirements of distributive justice.
This argument articulates an idea of distributive justice that endorses a flatter gradient of economic inequality across the groups of the worst off, the groups in the middle of the distribution (including both the ‘working class’ and the ‘middle class’), and the elites. Specifically, it endorses a flatter gradient of inequality by increasing the share of the population in the middle of the distribution (Schemmel 2011). It is not distributional egalitarianism in the sense of aiming to ensure that everyone has the same economic resources. It is not a theory of distributive justice with absolute priority or a high degree of relative priority for the worst-off groups. Indeed, when this idea of distributive justice is used to support trade restrictions, it can be criticized on the grounds that it is insensitive to the economic condition of the worst off. Trade liberalization would benefit groups without earned incomes because it lowers the cost of living, and it would benefit the unemployed because it increases the quantity of jobs.
One powerful objection to this version of the argument is that trade restrictions are an expensive mechanism to satisfy this idea of distributive justice. It is estimated that every job in U.S. manufacturing saved through trade restrictions has cost over a hundred thousand dollars in forgone economic benefits (Perry 2017). Furthermore, trade restrictions have their own negative effects on the economic condition of groups in the middle of the economic distribution, because these groups are both workers and consumers. Trade liberalization lowers the cost of living through cheaper and better imports. Finally, there are less expensive mechanisms for a society to provide access to jobs that pay average wages. Economists typically recommend that societies should have domestic social insurance and employment programs to provide retraining and other assistance to displaced workers, in order to compensate for the effects of trade liberalization. In sum, even if it is plausible that justice requires concern for the gradient of economic inequalities, trade restrictions are not well supported as a mechanism for satisfying this particular demand of distributive justice.
Now I will elaborate another version of the argument, using a different definition of a good job. A good job is a job that provides its occupant with an average wage and the social status of a ‘normal’ member of society.Footnote 27 A society has a reason to maintain the availability of average-waged jobs, even at significant economic expense, because these jobs provide their occupants with a social status as well as economic benefits. Individuals, groups, and organizations provide many forms of favorable social treatment to the occupants of good jobs. For instance, in many societies, a person with a good job enjoys favorable treatment as a ‘normally’ suitable candidate as a romantic partner, particularly for marriage. The expressive meaning of beneficial treatment, in this form as well as others, tends to concern the job occupant’s moral status. Often the meaning is that the occupant has dignity and moral worth, and her contributions to her society are recognized (Jütten 2017; Sayer 2016). When a worker loses a job with an average wage, she has lost income and the security of her status position as a normal member of society.Footnote 28 In societies that express negative valuations of the occupants of lower-status positions, such as contempt, the loss of an average-waged job can be accompanied by a dramatic decline in status.
This version of the argument articulates an idea of social justice that has strong concern for the social condition of groups in the middle of the economic distribution. A society has a reason to restrict trade to maintain the availability of positions of favorable social status, even at considerable expense to the society’s overall economic prosperity. Trade restrictions are justified to maintain a more equal distribution of positions within the status hierarchy, specifically by preserving a share of positions associated with the occupation of average-waged jobs. This argument does not appeal to an idea of social egalitarianism that endorses the equal social status of all citizens. The argument does not appeal to an idea of justice that has primary concern for improving the absolute or relative positions of groups occupying the lowest social status. Trade restrictions do not plausibly improve the social condition of lower-status groups, because restrictions cannot increase the availability of average-waged jobs to such an extent that lower-status groups gain opportunities for social ascent. Trade restrictions can only be supported by an idea of justice that strongly favors groups in the middle of a society’s distribution of economic resources.
This idea of social justice advances a plausible line of criticism against trade liberalization for societies with steep gradients of social and economic inequalities.Footnote 29 It is especially plausible when a society is unlikely to follow the conventional recommendation to offer domestic social insurance and employment assistance. It is also plausible when these programs do not succeed in helping displaced workers find new jobs that secure a ‘normal’ social status. However, this idea of social justice also endorses social inequalities between groups in the middle of the economic distribution and groups occupying a low social status. The implication is especially problematic in the context of societies that stigmatize their worst-off groups. Some of the most prominent rhetoric in favor of trade restrictions tends to affirm the moral status of particular groups of workers by making negative comparisons to other groups with lower status.
To illustrate that the argument for trade restriction has both of these elements, consider again the U.S.’s current political discussion about trade policy. The debate over trade in the U.S. has been led largely by President Trump, starting with the campaign leading up to the 2016 election. He advances the criticism that trade liberalization contributes to increasing inequalities between workers and elites, using emotional and morally laden rhetoric: ‘Our workers’ loyalty was repaid… with total betrayal. Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization, moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite, who donate to politicians, very, very wealthy’ (Skonieczny 2018, p. 68). In addition, Trump affirms the status of the middle-class workers and the working classes through a contrast with lower status groups, who are characterized as posing a threat.Footnote 30 In particular, Trump draws sharp ‘moral boundaries’ between workers who deserve jobs and undocumented immigrants, refugees, and Muslims (Lamont, Park, and Ayala-Hurtado 2017). The meaning of his expressions is understood because they refer to existing conventions in the public culture. For instance, expressed support for trade protectionism in the U.S. is stronger when people are exposed to images of white workers, as opposed to black workers, in portrayals of the beneficiaries (Guisinger 2017, pp. 140–173).
There is not necessarily any logical connection between policies that restrict trade and the expression that certain groups are inferior. There is a conventional social meaning of trade protectionism in the U.S., which affirms the social and moral status of particular workers occupying the middle positions of the economic distribution, while it draws a contrast with the inferior status of other groups.Footnote 31 Given that American society has these conventional meanings and a steep gradient of social and economic inequalities, it difficult to determine whether the U.S.’s pursuit of social justice would be best furthered through trade liberalization or restrictions. In the future, social movements and new political leadership could act to sever the connection between trade protectionism and these social meanings. There could be broader action in the U.S. to undermine its social meanings of contempt and to flatten its social hierarchy, through efforts to broaden access to ‘good jobs’ and to sever the connection between an average-waged job and its occupant’s social and moral status. To make decisions about its trade policy, the U.S. requires a self-diagnosis of whether its most significant problem of non-distributive social justice is its steep gradient of economic and social inequalities or its expressions about the inferiority of other groups, and whether it will address either of these problems in the future.
This paper aims to describe how a society can pursue social justice through its trade policy decisions, while setting aside questions of global justice. However, the arguments for trade protectionism in the U.S. support a greater share of economic benefits to be directed to American workers, rather than foreigners.Footnote 32 This is supported by the assessment that foreigners, particularly the Chinese, have engaged in unfair trading practices. It is a challenge to the paper’s framing, particularly its discussion of good jobs as a requirement of social justice, if global justice issues are entangled with social justice. A particularly salient trading practice is ‘social dumping’, in which low standards for production in foreign countries undermine the competitiveness of domestic industries. Mathias Risse considers a society (A) with relatively high social and labor standards, which negotiates a trade agreement with a society (B) with lower standards (2007). Domestic producers in A are faced with ‘race to the bottom’ competition on the basis of these standards. Firms in B can produce at a lower price as a result of their low standards, and import-competing domestic producers in A suffer losses. Risse argues that there are global claims of unfairness, of society A against society B, as well as domestic claims of unfairness within A for compensation or trade protectionism for the benefit of its import-competing firms.
Social dumping is a partial explanation for why trade liberalization has a tendency to reduce the availability of good jobs, especially in high-income societies. It does not seem to me that justice provides a reason in favor of restricting trade when social dumping is the explanation for why domestic firms are uncompetitive, without also providing a reason in favor of restrictions when foreign firms are simply more cost-efficient. We can understand a society’s decision to liberalize trade through the two different pathways, regardless of the explanation about how it results in fewer good jobs. First, there is the effect on the society’s economic productivity.Footnote 33 Second, there is the effect from the society forgoing the use of certain policy options. Following these two different pathways raises a set of questions for the society to answer about itself. Is it likely that the society will use its improvements in economic productivity to pursue distributive justice, both for already-disadvantaged groups and for workers newly displaced by trade? Will maintaining the availability of good jobs in this society flatten its gradient of social and economic inequalities? Is it likely that the society will alter its conventional social meanings, so that its trade policies aiming to protect good jobs do not also express that certain groups have inferior status?