Conservatives and Free Trade

Robert Lighthizer tries to make the case in this morning’s New York Times that conservative Republicans should all be pragmatic protectionists.

It’s telling that the op-ed column does not present one bit of evidence that trade barriers have actually made America a more free and prosperous country. His argument, rather, is one of name dropping: Many liberals, including Ted Kennedy, have “supported the advance of free trade” while many conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, have prudently deviated from “free-trade dogma.”

Lighthizer paints a misleading caricature of Ronald Reagan’s trade legacy. It’s true that Reagan bowed to protectionist pressure more often than he should have, but in his words and most of his deeds, he came down squarely in favor of free trade. As I noted in an op-ed published shortly after Reagan’s death in June 2004:

Reagan’s heart and head were clearly on the side of free trade. While president, he declared in 1986: “Our trade policy rests firmly on the foundation of free and open markets. I recognize … the inescapable conclusion that all of history has taught: The freer the flow of world trade, the stronger the tides of human progress and peace among nations.’

It was the Reagan administration that launched the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986 that lowered global tariffs and created the World Trade Organization. It was his administration that won approval of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1988. That agreement soon expanded to include Mexico in what became the North American Free Trade Agreement, realizing a vision that Reagan first articulated in the 1980 campaign. It was Reagan who vetoed protectionist textile quota bills in 1985 and 1988.

And Ted Kennedy as a free trader? His trade record is mixed, but on most votes in recent years, he has come down against trade liberalization. According to our new trade vote web feature, “Free Trade, Free Markets,” Kennedy voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the Chile and Singapore FTAs, presidential trade promotion authority, and the 2000 African trade bill. He voted in favor of China currency sanctions, exempting anti-dumping laws from WTO negotiations and the trade-distorting farm bill now making its way through Congress. If that’s the record of a free-trader, then the term has lost any meaning.

Whether a conservative should support free trade ultimately turns on what THAT label means. If conservative means one who opposes change and wants to preserve the status quo, then free trade is probably not the right policy. But if conservative means one who favors individual liberty, free markets, limited government, and a more peaceful world, free trade is a grand slam.