Though the protectionism put forward by the likes of Trump and Rubio is couched in the language of national interest, it is the opposite of that: Americans as a whole would be better off with lower food prices, but a small handful of Americans is much better off with higher prices secured by the policies supported by Rubio and other like-minded politicians. Americans as a whole are much better off when markets are allowed to allocate resources efficiently, but there is a vast and politically significant archipelago of communities that would prefer that certain inefficiencies be preserved, because their livings are tied to those inefficiencies and their communities have been built atop them. Detroit in 1960 was on top of the world — it was the highest-income city in the United States. Detroit would have been very comfortable if it could have been frozen in time, economically, in that moment. And a very wide array of politicians and activists, from local union leaders to President Ronald Reagan, took extraordinary steps to try to preserve the position of the U.S. automotive industry, with the disastrous consequences that you can see in front of you in Detroit today.
The things that gave Detroit its critical advantages in the early 20th century were not things that could be planned out in advance by super-intelligent philosopher-kings in the bureaucracies. Creating a marine-engine industry that would help to prepare the workforce for an automotive industry that would not exist until decades in the future is not the kind of plan that mere mortals can conceptualize or execute. If you had tried to explain to the best and most forward-looking thinkers of Detroit’s golden years that China and India would soon enough be significant high-tech competitors, they would have laughed at you. Also, if you’d told them that one of the biggest and most valuable U.S. companies in 2019 would be an electronic bulletin board where you can go to denounce your aunt as a hate-monger, they would have been perplexed, as, indeed, some of us are. Remember that many of the best minds of the time believed that the automobile would be a passing fad.