Commentary

Byron “Free Trade” Dorgan? What Planet Is This?

By Aaron Lukas
December 22, 2003

In the original Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston plays an astronaut — Taylor — who crashes on an unknown world ruled by intelligent apes. The film concludes when Taylor, seeing a partially buried Statue of Liberty, is devastated to learn that he’s actually landed on Earth. His faster-than-light space voyage had altered the flow of time, leaving him stranded in a hopeless future.

I bring this up because I, too, may be trapped in an alternate reality — and not because I awoke to discover rule by a government of shrieking, bickering primates. (Nothing new there.) My temporal uncertainty has instead been occasioned by a “Dear Colleague” letter dispatched from a legislator to his peers. The author is Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, who wrote to urge fellow senators to support his bill to legalize the “re-importation” of prescription drugs into the United States.

Re-importation is a complex issue. America’s drug companies undertake most of the world’s drug research and development. They depend on the U.S. market to recoup most of their costs, including spending on research that never pans out. U.S. drug companies then export medicines — often to foreign state-run health services — at prices far below those charged to Americans. In short, foreigners get ground-breaking drugs and Americans pick up the check. This is only possible because the U.S. government prevents these low-price drugs from being sold back to American customers.

The distinguished senator is unhappy with this state of affairs, and many free traders agree. Attached to the dear colleague letter was an article by the Cato Institute’s president and vice president making the case that, in Sen. Dorgan’s words, “free trade really is the answer for ensuring that American consumers no longer have to subsidize lower drug prices for the rest of the world.”

I certainly don’t wish to discourage Sen. Dorgan from circulating Cato material. Stop by anytime, sir, there’s plenty more research and commentary that we would love to give you — gratis! Yet reading this letter was a “statue in the sand” moment for me. When the senior Democrat from North Dakota says that “free trade really is the answer” to any policy question, then the space-time continuum must be out of whack.

Could this be the same Byron Dorgan who claimed, “More and more and more we see jobs in factories that are moved overseas that used to be good American jobs”? The Senator who fights tooth and nail to defend Americans against the scourge of low-priced imported sugar? The man who, when in the House of Representatives, cast the lone “nay” in a 34-to-1 vote by the Ways & Means Committee to approve the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement?

According to my colleague Daniel Griswold, who tracks the congressional votes on trade issues, Sen. Dorgan has one of the worst records on Capitol Hill. He has opposed nearly every free trade measure of any consequence, from granting presidential trade promotion authority to normalizing economic relations with China.

Sen. Dorgan writes in his dear colleague letter that, “When you buy a necktie from China, no one says you are importing China’s communist policies or human rights abuses.” Four months ago, however, he argued on the Senate floor that, “There are circumstances in which 12-year-old kids [in China] are working 16 hours a day and are being paid 14 cents an hour … it is not a standard with which we ought to aspire to compete.”

Something here doesn’t compute. The senator speaks passionately about the right of Americans to import prescription drugs at below-market prices. Yet when it comes to, say, wheat, it’s a different story. “After the [U.S.-Canada] trade agreement was finished, we began to see an avalanche of Canadian grain being sent into our country,” he said last year. “That Canadian grain came from the Canadian Wheat Board, which…has a monopoly on wheat, and is able to ship to this country deeply subsidized Canadian grain, undercutting our farmers, taking money right out of our farmers’ pockets.”

Funny, that sounds a bit like the monopoly Canadian Health Service’s below-cost drugs.

There are valid arguments against the federal government safeguarding drug-company profits by stopping imported drugs at the border, and Sen. Dorgan deserves praise for spurring debate on this issue. If Americans want to buy cheaper medicines from foreign sellers, they should be allowed to do so. But that logic should also apply to sugar, wheat, and other goods.

Perhaps Sen. Dorgan really has embraced free trade. Or maybe I’ve been transported to another planet. My guess, though, is that once the drug issue has faded, I’ll merely find myself in good ol’ hypocritical Washington.

Aaron Lukas, a former chief speechwriter for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, is an analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies.