It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that 2017 was the best of times and the worst of times for classical liberalism in the United States but not much of one.
In his inaugural address Donald Trump channeled an old trope —the forgotten man—although he updated it to “the forgotten men and women.” He asserted that his whole program was for those forgotten by Washington for decades.
But an important portion of the program for helping the forgotten man is in substantial tension with views of the man who originally introduced the phrase into the political lexicon. He was William Graham Sumner, a Yale professor of economics and 19th century classical liberal. For Sumner, the forgotten man was the citizen who was called on to shoulder the burdens of government’s social engineering. Here is Sumner’s most pertinent paragraph on his forgotten man:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X . . . What I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. . . . He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays.
In his inaugural, Trump was also more explicit about his trade policy than usual: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” But putting up tariffs to protect industries is an excellent example of how Sumner’s forgotten man is harmed.
The American Left generally welcomes immigration, but opposes foreign trade. There are exceptions of course, but generally the further left one moves this combination of policy preferences is even starker. Bernie Sanders seems wholly opposed to free trade and yet favors immigration. Indeed, he wants to make citizens of immigrants, even if they have come here illegally.
What explains this divergence? It cannot plausibly be concern for low-wage workers in the United States. It is true that trade, while being generally beneficial, can depress the income of low-wage workers (at least in the short term), because they must compete more with low-skilled workers elsewhere. But the effect of low-skilled immigrants is the same. It puts pressure on the wages of low-skilled Americans.
It can’t be concern for the poor abroad.