Do Tariffs Promote Human Rights?

A number of Republican Senators have written a letter to President Obama raising the issue of human rights abuses in Vietnam.  They have a laundry list of good reforms they want to see in Vietnam before that country is included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement currently under negotiation.

The letter includes this broad claim about the purpose of the TPP:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership should not serve as simply another trade agreement. As the collective name suggests, TPP should send a message to the international community that its member nations consider one another as trusted partners. As such, all nations in the TPP agreement should have a common commitment to religious freedoms and human values.

The Republican senators’ concerns match up well with those expressed by John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, who worries that the TPP will not do enough to improve human rights in Vietnam or other TPP countries.

The Obama administration needs to be more realistic in describing what can be accomplished by the TPP. It’s already bad enough to forego human rights protections for the sake of free trade. It’s even worse to attempt to sell the agreement by invoking supposed rights protections when they don’t exist.

The Obama administration needs to press harder on TPP members to improve their rights records—for real. The United States shouldn’t move ahead with the TPP until it can demonstrate more serious commitments to creating truly enforceable provisions on labor rights protections and better addressing human rights concerns generally.

If the purpose of the TPP were indeed to send a message about the members’ human rights records, then the senators would have a point.  If the purpose of the TPP were to impose new human rights obligations on TPP members, then Human Rights Watch would have a point.  But the purpose of the TPP is to reduce tariffs and other barriers that restrict trade.  At least, it should be, because that’s what it will actually do.

In a way, the Obama administration has invited the criticism it’s getting over human rights in the TPP.  The President has sold the TPP to Congress and the public as a way to spread “American values.”  It’s only natural then that people would debate what those values are and whether the TPP is spreading them effectively. 

And the critics are right.  Trade agreements are not a very direct way to reform oppressive regimes or enforce human rights norms.  They are, however, the most politically viable mechanism for reducing protectionism. 

Protectionism makes people’s lives worse by diverting economic gains toward politically favored interests at the expense of growth and quality of life, especially for the poor who are stuck paying higher prices for basic necessities like food and clothing.

So rather than linking the TPP with human rights, let’s ask about the impact of tariffs on human rights.  Does it help people in Vietnam that their own government imposes trade barriers to keep prices high and insulate state-owned businesses from competitive markets?  Does it help them when the United States imposes tariffs on the products they make? 

I challenge anyone who opposes the TPP due to Vietnam’s human rights record to explain the value of tariffs in fighting human rights abuses.

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