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.