Just days before the Trans-Pacific Partnership is scheduled to be signed by its 12 member governments, an official expert from the UN Human Rights Council released a statement criticizing the agreement for being incompatible with the goals of the UN human rights regime. The criticism isn’t about the TPP in particular so much as the modern model of trade agreements as an inadequate vehicle for furthering wealth redistribution and massive regulatory intervention to pursue progressive goals. That is, it’s a complaint about what the TPP doesn’t do.
There are, of course, lots of things the TPP doesn’t do. Critics have complained that the TPP doesn’t prevent climate change, doesn’t eliminate human trafficking, and doesn’t reform repressive regimes in Vietnam and Brunei. But these are not things the TPP was ever supposed to do. It’s like complaining that Obamacare doesn’t end the drug war.
There are legitimate criticisms to be leveled against the TPP—things it does but shouldn’t and things it doesn’t do as well as it should. There’s also a lot to like. But debates over trade agreements often get bogged down with unrelated controversies that are easier to argue about. Not one of the complaints the UN expert makes is explicitly about trade liberalization.
The statement includes two specific criticisms of the TPP. One is the secrecy of the negotiations, and the other is investor-state dispute settlement. These are well-worn, standard complaints opponents of the TPP have been making for years. The persuasiveness of both arguments relies on reflexive fear of the unknown—opponents can hint at what horrible things might happen from the TPP rather than looking at specific, measurable impacts.
The proliferation and prominence of non-trade arguments against trade agreements show that agreements like the TPP have strayed too far away from their core mission. Using “human rights” as an argument against trade agreements will be harder to do if they focus more on simply eliminating tariffs, quotas, and subsidies. A debate over the value of protectionism in promoting national and global welfare sounds very appealing and would surely lead to better policy.