If there’s one thing almost all politicians agree on right now, it’s “Buy American.” In his first week in office, President Joe Biden signed executive order 14005, “Ensuring the Future is Made in All of America by All of America’s Workers” — as Trumpy a title as one could ask for.

At the other end of the scale, Missouri's Sen. Josh Hawley has proposed a ludicrous Make in America to Sell in America Act, whereby federal officials would determine whether a product was “critical for our national security and essential for the protection of our industrial base.” If so, it would require at least 50% by value to be made in America.

You can see why such ideas are in vogue. The just-in-time supply chains that sustained many industries before 2020 were tested by the pandemic. Now, as the disease recedes and demand expands, supply struggles to keep pace. Lockdowns, shortages of truck drivers, rising freight costs — all these things have reminded us of how fragile the global economy can be.

But let’s keep a sense of perspective. We are still living enormously well by any historical standard. Our food is better and cheaper than it was 20 years ago, we have Netflix instead of terrestrial stations and Blockbuster videos, we buy new clothes rather than mending old ones, our phones are not just smaller and more efficient — they have replaced our maps, our cameras, our radios, our travel agents, our CD players, our chess sets, our newspapers.

All these miracles were made possible by globalization. As supply lines grew, producers narrowed their range, and consumers widened theirs. More precisely, producers specialized, prices fell, and consumers lived better. The fact that we came through the pandemic with such slight disruption would have been unimaginable two generations ago. Our ancestors would have loved the luxury of getting cross because a blockage in the Suez Canal had pushed up the prices of a good that they could not dream of.

Yes, a globalized economy is subject to disruption. But if you want an example of truly fragile economies, look at countries that seek, Hawley-like, to substitute imports.

Resilience, whether in food, vaccine components, or heavy goods, depends on being able to source from a wide variety of suppliers so that you are not vulnerable to a local shock. That local shock can happen just as easily in your own country as in someone else’s, which is why globalization brings greater security. Indeed, it was the international move away from the pursuit of self-sufficiency in food from the late 1960s that led to the elimination of famines. These days, famines happen only in those few states that have held out against the trend — North Korea, for example.

Does Biden grasp this? Of course he does. He and the officials around him sought to remove trade barriers under President Barack Obama, understanding that such distortions transfer wealth from the poor to the rich, or, more specifically, from the consumer to the privileged interests.

Does Hawley? Of course he does. He is a former professor with degrees from Stanford and Yale Law School. He is well aware that, more than 200 years ago, Adam Smith and David Ricardo showed how, as a matter of mathematical necessity, protectionism must always leave a nation poorer.

So why is he pretending that America can strengthen its economy by giving more power to government bureaucrats and allowing crony capitalists to escape competition? Because he knows it is popular.

Most people start with protectionist prejudices. The idea that we should “look after” “key” “strategic” industries sounds like plain common sense. The reality is harder to explain — that far from looking after them, tariffs make them inefficient and therefore vulnerable. As President Ronald Reagan used to say, protectionism should really be called “destructionism."

Both parties, to adapt H.L. Mencken, calculate that no one ever lost votes by underestimating the intelligence of the electorate. And on this issue, they have a point. It is human nature to begin with your hunch and then cast around for ways to rationalize it. Even before 2020, politicians could always guarantee applause by saying, “Protect key industries!” — a literal example of claptrap.

Still, before COVID-19, it was at least possible for governments to open their economies. People might not understand why it worked. But by and large, they could see that it did work, driving up living standards, especially for those on low incomes.

Not any more. In a crisis, we think with our lizard brains. The epidemic has left electorates around the world frightened, xenophobic and collectivist. Politicians from both sides sense that there is no market for individualism. And more’s the pity, they’re right.

DAN HANNAN is a contributing columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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