With the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations allegedly near completion, the transatlantic talks kicking into higher gear, and debate in Congress over U.S. trade policy objectives about to intensify, 2014 is shaping up to be the most consequential year for the trade agenda in a long time. Whether real free traders should rejoice over these developments depends on the emerging details, as well as the ability to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good.
Real free traders abhor domestic trade barriers and want them removed regardless of whether other governments remove their own barriers. The benefits of trade are the imports we obtain, not the exports we give up. The immediate benefits are measured by the value of imports that can be purchased for a given unit of exports – the more, the better – and domestic barriers reduce those terms of trade. Of course, there are also the secondary benefits of imports, which include greater variety, lower prices, more competition, better quality, and the innovation spawned by those and other factors.
The process of U.S. trade policy formulation has never been particularly accommodating of free traders’ perspectives. Free trade views have been marginalized by their being subsumed within a broader category of views labelled “pro-trade,” which is dominated by business lobbies and other “pro-export” mercantilists. As the definition of free trade has been expanded to mean pro-trade, the definition of protectionism has been narrowed to exclude views, such as: “I’m not a protectionist; I just want a level playing field,” or; “I’m for free trade, as long as it’s fair trade.” Those are the clichés of protectionists, who are now popularly grouped under the pro-trade umbrella.
So, today’s trade debate (framed as it is by media, lobbyists, and politicians) does not feature free-traders on one side and protectionists on the other. Instead, one is either pro-trade or anti-trade, supports corporations or their workers, and believes free trade agreements are either good or evil. In a world with these binary choices, nuance gets squeezed out. Where do you fit if you support the tariff reductions in a trade agreement, but are unhappy with the corporate welfare it bestows on particular industries? What if you know that trade liberalization is good for both corporations and their workers alike? What if you’re pro-market, but not pro-business?
Given these and other ambiguities, should free traders support free trade agreements? Let me lay down a marker for free trade – “real” free trade, that is.
Free markets are essential to our prosperity, and free trade is the extension of free markets across political borders. Making markets freer and expanding them to integrate more buyers, sellers, investors, and workers deepens and broadens that prosperity. When goods, services, capital, and labor flow freely across borders, Americans can take full advantage of the opportunities of the international marketplace. Free trade provides benefits to consumers and taxpayers in the form of lower prices, greater variety, and better quality. And, it enables businesses and workers to reap the benefits of innovation, specialization, and economies of scale that larger markets afford. Countless studies have shown that economies that are more open grow faster and achieve higher incomes than those that are relatively closed.
The future of multilateral trade has presented some vexing questions for policy watchers over the past few years. With the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations hopelessly stalled and the proliferation of regional and bilateral agreements in its stead, contemplation and debate about the fate of the World Trade Organization, its successful adjudicatory body, international trade governance, and globalization have been all the rage.
The significance of the Bali deal depends on whom you ask. Those heavily vested in the current architecture of the multilateral system tend to hail Bali as proof that multilateral negotiations are back in business and that there is renewed promise for completing the long-stalled Doha Round. Frankly, taking 12 years to forge an agreement on trade facilitation (basically, reform of customs procedures, which constitutes a tiny fraction of the Doha Round’s objectives) plus some concessions to permit more subsidization of agriculture in the name of food security is not exactly convincing evidence that Doha Round negotiators have demonstrated their cost effectiveness or the utility of this approach.
To the extent that trade agreements result in Americans being “freer” to transact how and with whom they please, I support them. But one of my biggest misgivings about these agreements, and the negotiations that precede them, is that they reinforce the fallacy that trade is an “Us-versus-Them” contest where the objective is to secure market openings abroad, while preventing such liberalization at home. Liberalization at home – opening the domestic market to competition – is what free trade is about. Thus, the objective of free trade negotiations is not free trade. Follow?
In response to a question from House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Devin Nunes about what was being done to ensure that liberalization of trade in film and television services isn’t excluded from the TTIP negotiations, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman assured: “The United States has made clear to the EU that we strongly support a comprehensive agreement without exclusions (my emphasis).”
Then there was this question from Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA): “Can you assure me that the Jones Act will not be diluted in any trade agreements that are negotiated during your tenure?”
Among other favors it bestows upon domestic shipbuilders, the Jones Act forbids foreign-flagged vessels from operating between U.S. ports, ensuring that U.S. maritime shipping (as crucial as it is to U.S. supply chains and U.S. production costs) is an industry that operates without any foreign competition. None.
How much more economically self-destructive can policy be than a federal law that consigns U.S. businesses to inefficient production and transportation options, deters investment in U.S. manufacturing and distribution operations, and gives carte blanche to shipbuilders to be as unresponsive to customer needs as they and their unions desire?
Ambassador Froman’s answer:
We recognize the importance that the Jones Act has for the state of Louisiana. This Administratrion has continuously ensured that the application of the Jones Act is permitted under each of our trade agreements. As we continue to participate in discussions where this issue may arise, including trade agreement negotiations, we will continue to take this position.
About being clear to the EU that we strongly support a comprehensive agreement without exclusions…not so much.
Today marks the official commencement of the much anticipated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations in Washington. An eventual agreement could eliminate tariffs and curb superfluous rules and regulations that impede commerce and raise costs for businesses and consumers in the world’s largest economies. Those prospects make the effort worthy of our attention and, possibly, our support, but one thing should be clear from the outset: the negotiations are less about free trade than they are the latest rejection of its virtue.
Among economists, businesspeople, and policy scholars, there is near unanimity that international trade is a good thing. Many even call themselves “free traders.” But self-identifying as a free trader in Washington usually means that one supports free trade over there (in other countries), and not necessarily over here, in the United States. What passes for free trade advocacy these days is endorsing the USTR’s official negotiating objectives, which condition liberalization at home on the foreign market access gains obtained for U.S exporters. And that ain’t free trade.
Has the intellectual debate about free trade been won? The close-to-consensus answer among several scholars discussing that question at Cato last week is “yes.” The better answer is “wrong question.” After all, how much does it really matter that free traders have won the intellectual debate when, in practice, trade policy is distinctly anti-intellectual and free trade is the rare exception, not the rule, around the world?
Consider the just-launched Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. If the free trade consensus were meaningful outside the ivory tower, these negotiations would not take place. At the heart of the talks rests the fallacy that protectionism is an asset to be dispensed with only if reciprocated, in roughly equal measure, by “negotiators” on the other side of the table. But if free trade were the rule, trade policy would have a purely domestic orientation and U.S. barriers would be removed without any need for negotiation because they would be recognized for what they are: taxes on consumers and businesses. It really is that simple.
But the TTIP is shaping up to be the mother of all negotiations: an interminable feast of mercantilist horse-trading, self-serving press conferences, and ever-premature, congratulatory pronouncements all intended to aggrandize negotiators and politicians who thirst to be seen doing something to restore economic hope without having to shake their respective vested interests from their protected perches. It’s all quite nauseating, really, but at least it serves to remind us that free trade is the rare exception, and when all else fails…
Granted, U.S. tariffs are relatively low on average, most quotas have gone away, and most other countries have reduced barriers to trade over the past half century, which has contributed in no small part to improvements in per capita income and quality of life around the world. Why that cause and effect hasn’t reinforced the theory enough to drive a stake through the heart of protectionism is the better question.
In the United States, instead of free trade, we have protectionism in its many guises, including: “Buy American” rules for government procurement; heavily protected services industries; apparently inextinguishable farm subsidies; sugar quotas; green-energy subsidies; industrial policy; the Export-Import bank; antidumping duties; regulatory protectionism masquerading as public health and safety regulations, and; the protectionism euphemistically embedded in so-called free trade agreements in the forms of rules of origin, local content requirements, intellectual property and investment protections, enforceable labor and environmental standards, and special carve-outs that immunize products—even industries—from international competition. In fact, the entire enterprise of trade negotiations is a paean to protectionism, conducted with the utmost care to avoid unsettling, without recompense, the special privileges of the status quo.
How has an intellectual consensus for free trade coexisted with these numerous and metastasizing affronts to it? Protectionism slipped the noose, that’s how.
Pitched as a cure for Europe’s woes, salvation for the multilateral trading system, and the last best chance to restrain the Chinese juggernaut, the stakes are high for the upcoming Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. Of course the primary objective of the TTIP is to reduce nagging impediments to commerce between the United States and the European Union. But success is far from a sure bet.
Given the numerous bilateral trade frictions that have eluded resolution for many years, the goal of a “comprehensive” agreement by the end of 2014 – the current target – is simply not credible. Success would require negotiators to lay down their calculators and spreadsheets, disavow the “exports good, imports bad” mantra of mercantilist doctrine on which they were raised, and act on behalf of their citizens instead of their domestic producer lobbies.
That outcome would be too good to be true, but there may be a certain genius to the tight timeframe: it will demand that negotiators forego excessive posturing and will limit the potential for ever-shifting political calculations to subvert progress. Regardless, success can only take the form of a less comprehensive agreement or, perhaps, a two-phased agreement where the first phase meets the 2014 deadline by achieving accord on relatively agreeable matters, while the tougher issues are relegated to a later train.
A recent paper co-published by the Atlantic Council and the Bertelsmann Foundation presented the results of a survey of American and European trade policy experts about the prospects for a successful TTIP agreement. More than half thought the negotiations would produce a “moderate agreement,” and most thought the agreement would take effect by the end of 2015 or 2016.
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