An Open Letter to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

Mr Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister
United Kingdom

Mr Sunak:

Word has it that, especially because the UK has now ‘brexited’ the European Union, you want a UK-US trade deal that would further increase trade between the British and American peoples. I could not agree more that a lowering of protectionist trade barriers would further raise the prosperity of both the British and the Americans. On purely materialistic grounds, such a move would be a win-win.

Such a move would also be sound ethically. Every protectionist measure infringes on the freedom of ordinary men and women to spend their incomes as they choose. This infringement is unjust if only because it is done to artificially enrich some individuals at the expense of their fellow citizens. This coerced transfer of income would be unethical regardless of the size of the gains bestowed on the privileged interest groups compared to the size of the losses imposed on the masses. Yet economics makes clear that the losses inflicted on the masses are larger than are the gains unfairly seized by the interest groups.

Protectionism isn’t only unethical; insofar as its purpose is to enrich the country as a whole, it’s also economically stupid.

As you are no doubt aware, the economic and ethical case for free trade was forged most solidly in your country. To this day, no more powerful case against protectionism exists than is found in Adam Smith’s 1776 Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. David Ricardo’s explanation, in 1817, of the principle of comparative advantage only further reinforced Smith’s case for free trade. From David Hume and Smith through Harriet Martineau, Richard Cobden, John Bright, William Gladstone, Edwin Cannan, Winston Churchill, and, today, Daniel Hannan, your country has blessed the world with some of the most insightful and eloquent champions of free trade.

And the free trade that these men and women championed was unilateral free trade. They advocated that each government remove protective trade restrictions, regardless of the economic or trade policies pursued by other governments.

For the sake of the citizens of your country, I urge you to travel this same wise path. Advocate and work for a removal of all protective barriers erected by the British government without concern for whether governments in the US and elsewhere follow suit. Were you to pursue a policy of unilateral free trade, you would honor – by following it – Britain’s glorious free-trade tradition.

Inspired largely by the principled advocacy of Cobden, Bright, and their Anti-Corn Law League, Prime Minister Robert Peel (joined by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords) courageously supported what remains to this day the single most significant move, both substantively and symbolically, toward free trade ever done by any government – namely, the repeal of the corn laws. In June of 1846 Parliament voted to remove these high tariffs on grain imports unilaterally. It did not do so in exchange for similar tariff reductions abroad; it did so exclusively for the benefit of the British people.

As both a citizen and resident of America, my own narrow interest would likely be better served by your refusal to lower British trade barriers except in exchange for the U.S. government’s lowering its trade barriers. I most certainly want my government to lower the barriers that it obnoxiously erects against my and my fellow Americans’ trade with non-Americans. And so your committing to allow the British people to enjoy the fruits of freer trade only on the condition that the US government allow Americans also to enjoy these fruits is more likely than would your unilateral lowering of trade barriers to entice my government to let me trade more freely. But not necessarily. As Doug Irwin and I wrote a couple of years ago in The Economist on the 175th anniversary of the repeal of the corn laws,

Britain’s decision to unilaterally open its market led other countries to move toward freer trade. The events were carefully watched in America. Aware that Britain was opening its market to American and other foreign grain led Congress to dramatically lower tariffs on British manufactured goods in 1846.

We can hope that, should Parliament today agree to a unilateral lowering of Britain’s trade barriers, other governments would today, as other governments did in the mid-19th century, respond by unilaterally lowering theirs.

But whether this hope is plausible or pathetic, your chief responsibility is to the people of Great Britain – a responsibility that demands that you make their trade as free as possible without regard to the trade policies of other governments. If President Biden – willing captive that he is to labor unions and his party’s anti-trade left flank – refuses to allow the American people to have free access to British exports, that is no good reason for you to keep the British people from having free access to American exports.

Be the Robert Peel of 2023! Welcome any and all further reductions in trade barriers in the US and elsewhere. But do not condition your support for free trade on other governments’ following suit. The stupidity and cupidity of other governments does not justify you acting with equal stupidity and cupidity. Instead, act wisely and virtuously. Again, be the Robert Peel of 2023! Move Britain toward free trade unilaterally.