Trading Tyranny for Freedom: How Open Markets Till the Soil for Democracy

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In the aftermath of September 11, the foreign policy dimensionof trade has reasserted itself. Expanding trade, especially withand among less developed countries, is once again being recognizedas a tool for encouraging democracy and respect for human rights inregions and countries of the world where those commodities havebeen the exception rather than the rule.

Political scientists have long noted the connection betweeneconomic development, political reform, and democracy. Increasedtrade and economic integration promote civil and political freedomsdirectly by opening a society to new technology, communications,and democratic ideas. Economic liberalization provides acounterweight to governmental power and creates space for civilsociety. And by promoting faster growth, trade promotes politicalfreedom indirectly by creating an economically independent andpolitical aware middle class.

The reality of the world today broadly reflects thosetheoretical links between trade, free markets, and political andcivil freedom. As trade and globalization have spread to more andmore countries in the last 30 years, so too have democracy andpolitical and civil freedoms. In particular, the most economicallyopen countries today are more than three times as likely to enjoyfull political and civil freedoms as those that are relativelyclosed. Those that are closed are nine times more likely tocompletely suppress civil and political freedoms as those that areopen. Nations that have followed a path of trade reform in recentdecades by progressively opening themselves to the global economyare significantly more likely to have expanded their citizens’political and civil freedoms.

The powerful connection between economic openness and politicaland civil freedom provides yet another argument for pursuing anexpansion of global trade. In the Middle East, China, Cuba, CentralAmerica, and other regions, free trade can buttress U.S. foreignpolicy by tilling foreign soil for the spread of democracy andhuman rights.

Daniel Griswold

Dan Griswold is associate director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies.