An Inquiry into Free Trade
I remember sitting in Dr. Vic Koop’s Abnormal Psychology class in college methodically trudging through the DSM-III and learning about a range of pathologies. One of the anti-social traits that accompanied a variety of conditions was denial and worst among the deniers were those who vociferously condemned the very conditions they secretly manifest. We’ve seen this scenario play out numerous times. A televangelist condemns sexual deviance only to be found himself a serial pedophile. A president campaigning for election on transparency and condemning the offensive behavior of a previous administration expands the most intrusive secretive surveillance and remote assassination program in modern history. Within our economic frameworks, I find that the lexicon we use to describe activities typically evolve around this same paradoxical madness. We use the term “risk management” to mask the predation on marginal exploitation just beyond the edge of sustainability. “What the market will bear,” is typically associated with a point just beyond what the market can reasonably withstand. We use the term “credit” when we really mean anonymized debt and indenture. When we speak of “employment” our focus is on those who are unproductively disengaged.
There are few extremes of this madness that rival the capitalist-heralded term “Free Trade”. And to be sure, “Free” trade has never existed just like “Free” markets or any other “Free” illusion. Over 200 years ago, the illusion of markets being “free” was socialized along with many other humanist ideals. The degree to which the government needed to interfere with markets for “development” (another lexical illusion) was debated as much in the Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton era as it is today. Before committing suicide in 1846, Friedrich List observed that “free trade would be a universal subjugation of the less advanced nations to the predominant manufacturing, commercial and naval power.” He argued that without equivalence of civilization, political cultivation and power industrially advanced nations would always advantage themselves at the expense of those who were less advanced. And, as if to simply confirm the prophetic critique of List, South Korea’s Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective recounts the evolution of trade policy that continues to evolve in favor of the 19th and 20th century industrial powers at the expense of the rest of the world’s economies. With List, Chang demonstrates the fact that policies lauded by the ‘developed’ as vital and important in one time are removed from acceptability once they’ve achieved their desired effect in the economies promulgating the rules. From resources to labor to climate, using a utility until its useful effect is maximized and then changing the rules to limit others’ capabilities to employ the same utility is the dominant meme and is fundamentally contrived and morally reprehensible.
Few places is this more pronounced than in the still-secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Allegedly justified to “promote innovation, economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs,” the TPP is really an imposition of protectionist proprietary enclosure regimes on producer countries for the benefit of incumbent consumer economic power juggernauts. Ironically, this agreement promoted as a way to foster “free trade” (like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU aka TTIP) is being “negotiated” in secret with many of the terms and conditions – and lobbyists for the same – being held well outside public visibility or scrutiny.
Free trade isn’t. The term affords social and political cover for manipulative protectionism in which one or more trading entities concede domestic priorities for the promise of some advantage on other fronts. It is a way, for example, to impose patent rights on biological matter in direct contravention to the will of the citizens who live in the “trading partner” country. It’s not democratic. It’s not transparent. And it’s not “Free”. These agreements, far from creating stability in the global economy and promoting lasting peace, actually enrich political patrons in the short term and fuel inequality-based conflict and uprisings in the medium and long term. The U.S. wants all TPP nations to open up their markets to tariff-free imports of U.S. agriculture products – most recently and most prone to contention at the moment: pork – but, in the same breath, wants to eliminate the prospect of generic medicine in protectionist favor to U.S. drug producers. In other words, the U.S. wants restrictions where they aid its interests and the elimination of the same when they harm economic inequality. Free? Fair? Transparent? Democratic? Not a prayer!
Like the sociopathic behaviors that make their way into the annals of DSM-III lectures, trade negotiations which insist on palatable terminology to mask offensive market manipulation need to be scrutinized in public and held to account. They harm short term economic growth and destroy integrity and accountability for future interactions. We can’t afford “free” anymore.