The Canadian government is apparently facing growing pressure to graft a Buy Canadian program onto its billions of dollars of planned infrastructure spending. That way, all those taxpayer dollars would help support employment and economic growth here at home instead of shipping it across the border and overseas. Who could object to such a well-meaning policy to prop up good, Canadian jobs?
Well, for starters, someone concerned with cost-effectiveness could raise an objection. Such a person might argue that our representatives in government have a responsibility to see that we taxpayers get our money’s worth when they, for example, decide from whom to buy the steel that will be used to build our bridges. Before raising our taxes even higher than they already are, or sinking us further into debt and saddling our kids with the bill, they should try to stretch each tax dollar as far as it’ll go. And if getting the best value for our money means buying steel from China, then that’s what they should do.
Someone who understands the general benefits of trade and specialization could also easily object to a Buy Canadian program. When we engage in voluntary exchange with other people, we do so because we expect to benefit—and the people we trade with do the same. By specializing in some form of production, we can get better at it, becoming more skilled and even finding better ways of doing things. Then, through trade, we benefit not only from our own skills and innovations, but from other people’s as well. Importantly, this dynamic holds whether our trading partners are across the street or on the other side of the planet.
On the flipside, someone who understands how harmful a trade war is to everyone concerned would have good reason to object to measures like a Buy Canadian program. All parties are losers in a trade war, as protectionist barriers beget more protectionist barriers. It’s like two imbeciles in a gunfight: one shoots himself in the foot, and his rival retaliates by shooting himself in his foot. As our economies limp along with these self-inflicted wounds, we are also in increased danger of seeing our strained relations deteriorate into actual wars, since instead of at least valuing foreigners for what we can get from them through trade, we find it easier to denigrate them as something less than human, the better to justify dropping bombs on them. If this seems farfetched, just think of how certain media outlets portray the people who are currently having bombs dropped on them.
And speaking of foreigners, someone whose concern for the well-being of his or her fellow humans doesn’t stop at an imaginary line on a map could also find a Buy Canadian program objectionable. It’s true that some people’s lives here at home are disrupted when businesses close, or when certain kinds of jobs disappear altogether from the local landscape. But the people we trade with in other countries? They’re people too, and trade benefits them just as it benefits someone in this country. Why their well-being should matter less to me because they live in a different country, I’ve never understood.
If we want to lend a hand to our neighbours who lose their jobs, we can help them transition to some other kind of work. But “we” shouldn’t keep making steel if “we” can’t make it at a competitive price anymore; instead, we should switch to doing something else, and buy our steel from people willing and able to produce it and sell it at a lower price. They in turn will buy from us the things that we are comparatively good at. And if other governments want to subsidize their steel industries—and therefore our purchases of steel—then our own governments shouldn’t compound the mistake by following suit.
Think about it: If it makes sense to Buy Canadian, then why not Buy Quebecois? Buy Montreal? Buy Mile-End? Buy Fairmount-between-St-Laurent-and-Clark? The simple fact is that global trade has made the globe richer, helping to bring us closer than we’ve ever been to eradicating extreme poverty, and allowing everyone not living under the boot heel of authoritarianism the opportunity to live a decent life. Parochialism will only make us poorer and less connected with other people around the world. Instead of Buy Canadian or Buy American programs, what we really need is a Buy Human policy, trading with whichever of our fellow human beings are offering us the best value for our money in their efforts to improve their own lives.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.