Trade and Competitiveness

How Canada’s Conservatives Should Solve Their Free Trade Confusion

Sam Routley
July 10, 2023
Free trade and economic liberalization have been bedrock beliefs of Canadian conservatives and official Conservative party policy since the 1980s. But in the past few years, conservatives in the United States and Europe have charged that these policies destroy manufacturing jobs, promote national economic decline and cede authority and influence to bad actors like China. What’s a Canadian conservative to do? Samuel Routley traces the evolution of conservative thinking on free trade and draws lessons for how it should change now. Conservatives, Routley argues, should dislodge free trade from ideological orthodoxy and redirect attention to a renewed engagement with social and cultural institutions.
Trade and Competitiveness

How Canada’s Conservatives Should Solve Their Free Trade Confusion

Sam Routley
July 10, 2023
Free trade and economic liberalization have been bedrock beliefs of Canadian conservatives and official Conservative party policy since the 1980s. But in the past few years, conservatives in the United States and Europe have charged that these policies destroy manufacturing jobs, promote national economic decline and cede authority and influence to bad actors like China. What’s a Canadian conservative to do? Samuel Routley traces the evolution of conservative thinking on free trade and draws lessons for how it should change now. Conservatives, Routley argues, should dislodge free trade from ideological orthodoxy and redirect attention to a renewed engagement with social and cultural institutions.
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Canada has always relied on international trade for its wellbeing. Nearly one-third of the country’s $3 trillion annual GDP is generated by global trade and our position as a key commodities exporter makes us a major player in global supply chains. This has presented an enduring policy challenge: while Canada has achieved considerable economic success through trade, it has been vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of its export commodities and is often unable to shield itself from global economic downturns. Moreover, in an era of liberalized trade, Canada’s prosperity remains largely reliant on the interests and influence of foreign actors.

Despite these challenges, since implementation of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement by a Progressive Conservative government in 1989, the predominant approach of Canada’s federal government – whether Conservatives or Liberals held office – has been to pursue greater trade liberalization and economic integration. A Liberal government, for example, implemented the successor North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Since then, further trade zones have and continue to be negotiated with additional partners in Europe, the Americas and the Pacific Rim.

The general international consensus on the value of increased trade and economic interdependence appears to be unravelling in many Western democracies. Trade liberalization is blamed for promoting vast income inequality, hollowing out the manufacturing sector in Western countries, and perpetuating underdevelopment in the Global South. Many are also concerned that the policy has made states more reliant on other actors – private as well as public – and weakened national self-determination. This is especially problematic when it involves emergent authoritarian powers that show no signs of democratizing.

Trade liberalization is blamed for promoting income inequality, hollowing out the manufacturing sector and stifling development in the Global South, all in the name of efficiency and cheap consumer goods. (Sources of photos (clockwise from top left): RRphotography, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Vivid Brands/Shutterstock; JeepersMedia, licensed under CC BY 2.0; Stefan Magdalinski, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Economic liberalism has always had detractors, particularly on the left. But now, novel criticism is coming from the right. Pro-protectionist conservatives, using labels like “America First” and “Common Good” conservatism, not only criticize free trade as detrimental to national economic interests but, more importantly, dispute the very idea of economic efficiency as a leading policy goal. Advocates of this position instead seek to reorient policy-making away from individual economic success and towards more normative ideas of communitarian cohesion. Indeed, the right’s evolving position on free trade reflects the broader transformations that are coming to characterize conservative politics in the West.

The Canadian response remains unclear and has been largely defensive. The Trudeau Liberals, for example, continue to pursue further free trade agreements and resist American protectionist impulses. This was made clear by their 2017 approach to the renewed United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which managed to maintain the NAFTA’s broad principles alongside some concessions to the protectionist goals of the Donald Trump Administration.

A new skepticism: Where free trade was Conservative orthodoxy since the late 80s, party leaders have been more ambivalent of late; former leader Erin O’Toole (top) mentioned a “Canada First” approach and current leader Pierre Poilievre (bottom) has emphasized increased industrial self-sufficiency. (Source of photos: The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

The Conservatives have been more ambivalent: former leader Erin O’Toole mentioned a “Canada First” approach that expressed some skepticism towards free trade and its claim to meeting all of Canada’s needs. O’Toole briefly advocated both greater industrial self-sufficiency and a harder line to China. O’Toole’s successor, Pierre Poilievre, has emphasized the value of increased self-sufficiency in energy and food production, even if it requires government intervention to counteract free-market incentives. For instance, Poilievre has promised to ban all overseas oil imports and to subsidize a west-to-east crude oil pipeline.

This piecemeal approach is not an adequate strategy for the future: the shifting global environment requires that conservatives re-evaluate Canada’s approach to free trade and its relationship to the global marketplace; we need to decide whether to follow the trends towards protectionism or campaign for a renewed approach to trade liberalization.

Often missed in this discussion is Canada’s historical skepticism of free trade, particularly among conservatives. Many felt the policy would fundamentally weaken Canadian sovereignty and national distinctiveness and claimed that it was against the common good. The eventual adoption of free trade in the 1980s stemmed from Canadian conservatism’s evolution away from an organic communitarian ethos towards one aimed at maximizing individual economic freedom, business competitiveness and consumer choice. This shift was closely linked to the increased population and economic importance of the western provinces; free trade found its strongest support in Alberta.

Piecing together a sound and comprehensive Conservative trade policy for the future will once again require considering more than just economics.

Canada’s National Tension: Economic Competitiveness versus Cultural Distinctiveness

Canada was conceived of largely as an economic project. Early development followed on from the benefits provided by staple trade products like beaver fur and timber. Following Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government incorporated and settled the West in pursuit of a concentrated continental, east-to-west economic vision.

In Canada, political and cultural questions have largely flowed downstream from economic ones. Confederation was also motivated by the desire to protect and perpetuate a political community that was distinct from others. This was comprised mainly of the special accommodation between English-speaking (and mainly Protestant) Ontario and French-speaking (and almost entirely Catholic) Quebec, the close connection to the British constitutional tradition and monarchy, and to the overall aversion to the republican culture of the United States. Tradition, authority, community cohesion, pragmatism and the common good were all parts of the rhetoric of the time, in opposition to the American emphasis on direct democracy and competitive individualism.

An “economic project”: Canada’s early development flowed out of trade in staple products like fur and timber; trade continues to generate nearly one-third of the country’s GDP. Shown at left, late-19th century Canadian lumberjacks, and at right, Montreal Harbour, 1902. (Sources of photos: (left) Library and Archives Canada/PA-011632; (right) Library and Archives Canada Blog/a201779)

Although the British connection has gradually loosened, the idea that Canada should exist as a political community distinct from the United States has never been abandoned. This idea exists in tension with Canada’s underlying economic interest in further economic interdependence with other states as sources of investment capital, industrial infrastructure and consumer goods, and as markets for Canada’s commodities and manufactured goods. Unfettered trade in goods, services and capital in turn opens the possibility, through increasing foreign political, cultural and social influences, of a breakdown of Canada’s sovereignty.

Given their attachment to Canada as a national project, conservatives had always opposed free trade for these non-economic reasons. The Macdonald government pursued its National Policy which levied high tariffs on foreign imported goods to help Canadian manufacturing withstand American competition. It also sought to leverage state funds and regulation to build the foundations for national banking, infrastructure and transportation even if they were not immediately competitive. These moves were designed to connect a small and geographically disparate population that, if left alone in a free market, would inevitably drift towards the pull of continentalism.

Historically, Conservatives long argued Canada needed protection from the economic powerhouse next door; Robert Borden (top left) won the 1911 election by railing against the free trade policy of Liberal Wilfrid Laurier (top right), arguing it would bring the “Americanization” of Canada. Shown on bottom, anti-free trade postcard, 1910. (Source of bottom image: Corbis via Getty Images, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

This was to be the party’s standard policy line for the next several decades. In the 1911 election, leader Robert Borden managed to rally Montreal and Toronto business interests against the Liberal Wilfrid Laurier government’s free trade policy by claiming that it would ultimately “Americanize” Canada.

Borden’s stance was a careful combination of electoral pragmatism and ideological principle. Throughout this period, the Conservatives received pushback from the producers in the Western provinces that favoured free trade, often leading to poor electoral performances. The party also relied on predominantly central Canadian domestic business interests to finance their campaigns, businesses that could not compete against American firms under free trade. But they maintained this skepticism of open markets even as the economic elites gradually became more supportive of continental integration, transferring much of their support to the Mackenzie King Liberals.

Understanding the historical Conservative position requires considering its ideological starting point and how it contrasts to contemporary conservative thinking. The historical position rejected the emphasis on, first, the individual as society’s fundamental unit and, second, on maximizing individual autonomy as a political priority. This view held that individual freedom and the state’s role in advancing it was not a matter of avoiding or dismantling constraints on individual action.

This view does not necessarily reject market liberalization nor a capitalist economy. Rather, it suggests that the market should be viewed through the lens of how it contributes to a broader social whole, as a means but not an end. Rather than focusing on improving material wellbeing, competitiveness and choice for individuals, the state should mainly work to preserve other social institutions even if that means curbing immediate market incentives.

No ideologues: Conservative leaders R.B. Bennett (left) and Robert Stanfield (right) both championed interventionist policies that were well short of absolute economic freedom – unemployment insurance in Bennett’s case and wage-and-price controls in Stanfield’s.

Macdonald, for example, believed in what authors Ben Woodfinden and Sean Speer describe as “a political program that sought to situate progress and development in a context of order and stability,” essentially an interventionist state that worked alongside the market. Later Conservative leaders R.B Bennett and Robert Stanfield both supported active, though always imperfect, welfare state policies that prioritized good benefits and wages for workers. While Bennett unsuccessfully introduced a Canadian “New Deal” of unemployment insurance, Stanfield advocated wage and price controls, losing the subsequent election only to have the Pierre Trudeau Liberals co-opt the idea.

This approach, however, could not resist the pull of the American market or economic liberalization’s growing momentum after the Second World War. In the 1980s conservatives became Canada’s main proponents of free trade, on which they fought and won the 1988 election. Partly this was a response to the damage inflicted by Keynesian economics – namely stagflation and deficits – but it was also the product of ideological shifts elsewhere, and the growing belief that the vast welfare state apparatus was inefficient, quasi-tyrannical and inconducive to individual freedom and character. Also influential was the Austrian School of economics and its idea that the state should resemble a free market as much as possible.

Thus, free trade – as one component of a broader effort at state rollback and economic deregulation – found support not only for its objective benefits but also because it encourages, in theory, freedom, self-reliance and improvement in material wellbeing. Universal free trade has not been fully realized, of course. Even with free trade agreements in place, Canadian political realities have meant keeping highly protectionist and regulated sectors in place – most notably supply-managed dairy and poultry farming.

But free trade is nevertheless Conservatives’ default policy position. Since 1988 no aspiring leadership candidate has launched a full-throated attack on it, nor has any right-leaning insurgent party done anything other than push for more trade liberalization.

The Contemporary Conservative Critique: Towards Protectionism

This orthodoxy is increasingly challenged by conservatives elsewhere. Populist movements of the 2010s saw free trade as a cause of national decline, shrinking the manufacturing sector and displacing its labour force, and widening income inequality. While it benefited a growing cosmopolitan and socially progressive urban class, it made “losers” out of workers by restricting the wages and social mobility of low-skilled labour. Rather than promoting a common national good, it cleaves the population into increasingly separated groups of “haves” and “have-nots.”

In Europe, populist conservatives in several countries attacked the European Union’s alleged efforts, through continual economic integration and mass immigration, to break down the distinctive political culture of member states. In the U.S., Donald Trump was elected partly on his charge that America’s free trade deals were “rigged” by inept domestic negotiators and malicious international actors. And his Administration sought to shake-up the status quo, pulling out of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, imposing protectionism on steel and aluminum, renegotiating NAFTA, and starting a trade war with China.

Trade warrior: Donald Trump was elected U.S. President partly on his charge that free trade was bad for America; as president, he renegotiated NAFTA, imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum and started a trade war with China. (Source of photo: Steve Sykes/Shutterstock)

This early reaction against free trade was temperamental, ad-hoc and of little impact relative to the much wider social, demographic and technological changes of the last 30 years. Research from the time has shown that the main predictor of support for protectionism was not personal economic distress but perceptions of American global decline.

These expressions were enough, however, to disrupt the mainstream conservative establishment to foster a movement, including figures such as Senators J.D Vance and Josh Hawley, that is seeking to develop more coherent, grounded and principled forms of opposition. As with the populists, they see free trade as a main culprit of the breakdown of the mid-century American middle class ideal. This centres on the fact that the “average” American can no longer rely on the stable, well-paying work foundational to personal prosperity. The overall concern, however, are the broader ramifications of this condition.

This new school of free trade critics argue that it necessarily breaks down local community cohesion because, by weakening borders, it shifts attention, initiative and power to the broader global market, that is, the interests of the rootless global financial elite, international institutions and multinational corporations. Those not tied to a particular place are free to pursue self-fulfillment and push for socially “progressive” transformations, while the average person is robbed of self-determination. Too many Americans lack the economic opportunity necessary to establish a base of financial independence, preventing their rooted participation in the broader life of community and nation. This, in turn, contributes to the breakdown of the vital intermediary institutions between the individual, the state and the market.

A new school of conservative critics holds that economic liberalization has robbed Americans of economic opportunities and led to suffering and despair; protectionism is seen as a positive force putting the nation’s own needs first. (Sources of photos: (top) Tada Images/Shutterstock; Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

The result is a society increasingly made up of isolated individuals who, while theoretically autonomous from state constraints, are ripe for exploitation by technocrats, social engineers and profit-driven corporations. At its most severe, this produces what economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case have called the “depths of despair”: a noticeable rise in midlife mortality among low-educated, rural residents thanks to hopelessness and self-destructive behaviour. Surely also part of this phenomenon is the catastrophic level of fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. – now at some 100,000 annually.

Protectionism is therefore proposed as a component of a broader state-directed industrial policy that, by curbing the free market, directs economic forces towards more desirable social ends including the revival of domestic manufacturing, intact families, individual economic self-determination and community cohesion. In contrast to prior conservative orthodoxy, the current approach calls for a shift to a more robust, interventionist and morally partial state.

The move against free trade is also supported by a more general shift throughout American conservatism away from the “neocon” promotion of international causes towards valuing states as independent actors that place the needs of their own citizens above all others – national sovereignty in general, “America First” in particular. Free trade has therefore been further attacked for the way it provides avenues for potentially malicious actors – including rival states like China, international organizations or powerful corporate interests – to undermine American wellbeing. It is worth noting that suspicion of if not antipathy towards China has become largely bipartisan.

The Unvarnished Truth about Free Trade

When it comes to the direct economic effects of free trade on Canada, the aforementioned criticisms are overstated and unpersuasive. Canada should not abandon the practice wholesale, nor should the U.S.: trade has been undeniably good for both countries. Throughout the strengthening narratives of American decline, the country’s economy has remained robust: production is efficient, jobs have been created to replace lost ones, wages continue to rise in the aggregate and the country’s share of global GDP has remained at about 25 percent despite Chinese competition. Free trade has worked to the favour of consumers by driving down costs, expanding choices and contributing to economic growth.

The claim that free trade has driven the decline of manufacturing and the displacement of its workforce is also not entirely accurate. Manufacturing’s share of the U.S. workforce has been declining since the 1940s. The principal driver is long-term technological innovation. In addition to allowing firms to make more with fewer workers, this has put the U.S in a more competitive position in technological sectors that open higher-skilled and higher-paying positions.

Don’t (entirely) blame free trade: Manufacturing has been declining for decades in advanced economies like the United States, depicted – Canada’s trend is nearly identical over the same period – with job losses coming in large part from technological innovation that, overall, makes countries more competitive and prosperous. (Source of graph:

The Canadian picture is similar although manufacturing has always comprised a smaller proportion of our workforce. Canadian manufacturing jobs have been in steady decline since the 1990s, with some industries – like textiles and automobiles – being especially hard-hit. And while some of this can be attributed to a shift to overseas production, technological innovations are again the main culprit. That has produced some unemployment in the short term, but this was offset by higher levels of re-employment and earnings in the long term. For the most part, Canada’s comparable advantages in technological, service and resource sectors have made up for the difference.

Additionally, while free trade cannot prevent the threat posed by international economic fluctuations, it has provided Canada – through access to more diverse markets – with greater flexibility in avoiding recessions.

There are also practical reasons to reject protectionism. Thirty years of free trade have produced fine-tuned and complex global supply chains, which would be challenging and costly to dismantle and rearrange. Although targeted protectionist policies can protect specific industries, the subsequent rise in input costs would be felt by Canadian consumers through higher product prices, while Canadian exporters would likely be hit by retaliatory measures.

The Trump Administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, for example, likely created several thousand jobs in that industry, but this was largely offset by job losses in other sectors. At the same time, the financial burdens produced by the tariffs were not felt by foreign exporters as much as they were by American consumers and importers. One study of steel tariffs, for example, showed that U.S. businesses and consumers were paying more than US$900,000 for every job created or saved by the measure, and another on washing machine tariffs showed that while they brought in US$82 million, they raised consumer prices an aggregate $1.5 billion.

Standard conservative skepticism of government intervention and oversight may be warranted here. Advocates of protectionism assume that governments can effectively diagnose the problem, implement the proper solution and make timely adjustments. Unlike the free market’s built-in incentives towards efficiency, a serious protectionist strategy risks creating a system of bureaucracy, special-interest lobbying and rent-seeking behaviour. Once a concession is granted, the economic calculus changes and the concession becomes hard to remove.

Net losses: The Trump Administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum likely created thousands of jobs in those industries but at the cost of jobs in other sectors plus higher prices to consumers. Shown, the Borusan Mannesmann Pipe manufacturing facility in Baytown, Texas. (Source of photo: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Critics of free trade are right about two crucial problems, however. First, its effects are uneven across regions, sectors and population segments. A focus on the aggregate hides the fact that while more educated workers in large urban areas reap the policy’s rewards, former manufacturing hubs, rural areas and their displaced workers endure the damage. Nor, as mentioned, does free trade immunize an economy against international fluctuations in commodity prices. While resource production has highly beneficial periods, inevitable downturns – like the 2015 global decline in oil prices – can ravage entire regions.

Second, critics are right that free trade can undermine state power and cede it to foreign, and less accountable, actors. While a straightforward policy in theory, economic interdependence is practised through highly laborious agreements full of special interest lobbying by multinational corporations. An emphasis on economic efficiency too often produces a race to the bottom in which corporations can easily seek out the areas willing to offer the lowest costs of business in terms of wages, tax rates, workplace conditions and environmental protection.

Trade agreements come from laborious negotiation driven by corporate lobbying for tax breaks and incentives; the Canadian automobile industry has benefited from both, but that didn’t stop the industry’s decline and the closing of plants. (Source of photo: Ford)

While this has the most detrimental effects on wages and working conditions in developing countries, it also affects countries like Canada through the way that companies can extract tax concessions and government funding to take advantage of specific communities. The Canadian automobile industry, for example, has benefited from government investments and tax breaks over the last few decades; but this has not prevented the industry’s decline and the closure of plants.

Trade liberalization has, paradoxically, helped to maintain authoritarian regimes by giving them greater leverage over the economies of others. The European energy crisis produced by Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, for example, shows the extent to which oil-exporters can punish opponents, actively contradicting the image of international cooperation predicted by the free-trade advocates of the past.

For Canada, the economic rise of China – while offering a massive trade opportunity – risks granting too much influence over economic institutions to a foreign power that has repeatedly demonstrated its ruthlessness in pursuing its interests (and repressing its citizens). Outside of current allegations concerning foreign interference in Canada’s political process, there have been concerns over Chinese state-affiliated companies acquiring significant stakes in Canadian resource producers.

Beyond Economics: A New Conservative Approach

Free trade, in summary, provides a range of benefits and drawbacks to Canada. While it provides clear economic advantages, its conservative critics have pointed out two problems that, while not enough to merit its renunciation, call for some policy adjustments. The most effective way Conservatives can do this is to dislodge free trade from its position of ideological orthodoxy and redirect attention towards a renewed engagement with social and cultural institutions alongside economic metrics.

An evolved approach: Without abandoning free trade, Canada could focus on targeted government interventions like infrastructure investment and creating economic opportunity zones to balance economic and societal needs. (Source of photos: Shutterstock)

A realistic orientation that incorporates the older Conservative tradition provides an initial strategy. Policymaking, under this view, does not look at individuals as strictly competing utility-maximizers as much as it focuses on how they interact with each other in community. Unlike limited protectionist strategies that protect failing industries, it supports a government that – through more targeted interventions – shapes economic forces so that the Canadian economy can be more competitive and conducive to other communitarian or national needs.

This can include, for example, infrastructure investments, economic opportunity zones, job training to encourage the benefits of free trade flowing to all communities and, for inevitable downturns or needs for adjustment, strengthened labour protections and social safety nets to meet basic needs when the market does not do so. The threat of malicious foreign interference also calls for increased economic nationalism, understood as ways to both limit the influence of undue foreign investment capital and encourage Canadian ownership of domestic industries.

This means economic policy will need to move away from what is most economically efficient in several cases, sacrificing free market ideals for a more expansive notion of the common good. Policy needs to rely on more than just market forces. Energy exports are a good example, as the current practice is to import some oil into Canada because of a lack of domestic pipeline access and the fact that is cheaper to do so. This ought to be reconsidered in the light of the alternative benefits of greater energy self-sufficiency and diminished reliance on morally dubious exporters.

At the same time, multinational corporations should be reined in, not only through greater oversight but by avoiding the temptation to offer limitless concessions – as in the absurdly high subsidies granted VW to build an electric vehicle battery plant in Ontario. This needs to be part of a greater international effort – most notably through the way future agreements are negotiated – to avoid the race to the bottom by placing a minimum cost of doing business in terms of labour protections and regulations in other countries, which would make higher-cost countries like Canada less uncompetitive, in turn reducing the need for subsidies and other concessions here at home.

The remaining components of the international trade regime should, however, be maintained – because they are good for Canadians. Today’s emerging international needs put Canada in an enviable place to reap future economic benefits if free trade is to be maintained, including a pushback against “dictator oil,” investments in batteries and renewable energy, and the promise of mineral resources extracted from the North.

There are no real existential threats to Canada, but the old skepticism towards free trade remains useful because it shows the necessity, in crafting good policy, of articulating why Canada itself as a national community is useful and worth improving. This more enduring change in orientation – rather than narrow arguments about economic efficiency – is the way forward for Canadian conservatives.

Sam Routley is a PhD Student in Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.

Source of main image: Joanne Dale/Shutterstock.

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