Category Archive 'Free Trade'

15 Apr 2020

Separating From China Comes Next

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Andrew A. Michta contends that the principles of Liberalism and Free Trade are philosophically fine, but have unacceptable drawbacks in a real world in which your trading partner is also your adversary and has no respect for human life.

By striving to “flatten” the world (in Thomas Friedman’s memorable phrase) into a single, borderless entity in pursuit of nothing but profit and prosperity, this worldview has created huge blind spots. For example, it was powerless to predict that China would build on its early advantage in sheer numbers of low-skilled workers to lock in a dominant and increasingly powerful position for itself in global supply chains. Economies of scale played their part, as did the complementarity of the various manufacturing sectors the country strategically developed, not to mention China’s bullying and corrupting practices. The end result was that the costs of shifting to poorer countries would be unappetizing to corporate supply chain managers. Worse still, such thinking could not account for the fact that behind the scores of successful companies lay a monolithic, totalitarian, nationalist entity with a vision for restoring China’s role in the world: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

When bereft of redundancies, networks devolve to hierarchies, which in turn create winners and losers. Hierarchies do not diminish the key importance of state power in international relations. On the contrary, they enable it. As China has grown to become the seemingly irreplaceable core of a globalized economy, the CCP has pursued predatory mercantilism in its commercial relations with the West, in the process tilting the hard power balance in its favor. In an economic system that allows for the flow of technology and capital across national borders, redundancies in the supply chain are essential to the preservation of state sovereignty and government capacity to act in a crisis. The Wuhan Virus pandemic is proving so devastating because the radical centralization of market networks has allowed for failure at a single point in our supply chain to leave the system with no capacity to off-load demand onto redundant networks.

In short, globalization, as preached and practiced over the past four decades, has been shown for what it has always been: profiteering off of a vast pool of centrally controlled labor. While many vast fortunes have been made in the West as a result, and as American consumers binged on low-cost goods, the biggest winner has naturally been the Chinese Communist Party elite. And though even before the 2016 U.S. election there was a growing realization among Western captains of industry that something was not quite right with China’s role in the system, few were willing to ask big enough questions about the system as a whole.

The fundamental question is one of values: Is this kind of globalization compatible with liberty and democratic governance? My simple answer is no. By ignoring the role of nations in the international system—or, if not ignoring, indeed prophesying the nation’s demise—globalization’s boosters have implicitly, if perhaps unwittingly, lessened the accountability of elites and downgraded the voice of voters in these matters. No citizenry, if asked, would vote for the status quo—their working-class communities gutted, their security endangered, and their country made dependent on an adversarial foreign power.

RTWT

In the end, cheaper running shoes and smart phones are just not worth it.

28 Jan 2017

The Triumph of Free Trade

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An elaborate allegorical illustration used as the frontispiece in Jane Cobden’s book The Hungry Forties (1904) which was part of the free trade campaign against Joseph Chamberlain’s pro-tariff movement in 1903. There is a very large sheaf of wheat (the “Fairy Wheatsheaf”) in the centre with the heads of Cobden and Bright near the base (other heads are visible in the grass beneath and around the sheaf but these are hard to identify); to the left is a destitute family which has been impoverished by tariffs; to the right is a prosperous family which has been enriched by free trade. The writing at the bottom of the page is hard to read but it is called “The fairy Wheatsheaf. Free Trade & Protection Contrasted”

Richard Ebling, at the Foundation for Economic Education, explains how free trade triumphed in the mid-19th century making Europe into a great and prosperous modern civilization.

Great Britain became the first country in the world to institute a unilateral policy of free trade. For the rest of the nineteenth century — indeed, until the dark forces of collectivism enveloped Europe during World War I — the British Empire was open to the entire world for the free movement of men, money, and goods.

Its economic success served as a bright, principled example to the rest of the globe, many of whose member countries followed the British lead in establishing, if not complete free trade, at least regimes of much greater freedom of trade and commerce.

British free trade policy helped to usher in the age of nineteenth-century free trade, and fostered what has been called the classical liberal era of “the three freedoms” which only came to an end with the First World War in 1914. The German free market economist Gustav Stolper explained these three freedoms in his book, This Age of Fable (1942), written while in exile in America during the Second World War:

    They were: freedom of movement for men, for goods and for money. Everyone could leave his country when he wanted and travel or migrate wherever he pleased without a passport. The only European country that demanded passports (not even visas!) was Russia, looked at askance for her backwardness with an almost contemptuous smile. Who wanted to travel to Russia anyway? …

    There were still customs barriers on the European continent, it is true. But the vast British Empire was free-trade territory open to all in free competition, and several other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, came close to free trade.

    For a time the Great Powers on the European continent seemed to veer in the same direction. In the sixties of the nineteenth century the conviction was general that international free trade was the future. The subsequent decades did not quite fulfill that promise. In the late seventies reactionary trends set in. But looking back at the methods and the degree of protectionism built up at that time we are seized with nostalgic envy. Whether a bit higher or a bit lower, tariffs never checked the free flow of goods. All they affected was some minor price changes, presumably mirroring some vested interest.

    And the most natural of all was the free movement of money. Year in, year out, billions were invested by the great industrial European Powers in foreign countries, European and non-European … These billions were regarded as safe investments with attractive yields, desirable for creditors as well as debtors, with no doubts about the eventual return of both interest and principal.

The nineteenth-century victory of free trade over Mercantilism and Protectionism represented one of the great triumphs in the history of classical liberalism. It was the achievement of the Scottish Moral Philosophers and those that are now referred to as the “Classical Economists” in demonstrating the spontaneous order and coordination arising from a free, competitive market system – Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” and the cooperative gains for all through a system of division of labor.

The momentous importance in human history of this triumph is not always appreciated for what it was: a crucial institutional transformation that heralded the beginning of the material and cultural improvement of mankind through the private and peaceful associations of humanity for the mutual betterment of the mass of mankind. This transformation continues today, even in the face of the reactionary return to paternalistic government and political interference with human life over the last century.

16 Jan 2008

No Whining About Free Trade

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Steven E. Landsburg subjects the current campaign issue of domestic jobs lost by export overseas to a philosophical re-examination.

Even if you’ve just lost your job, there’s something fundamentally churlish about blaming the very phenomenon that’s elevated you above the subsistence level since the day you were born. If the world owes you compensation for enduring the downside of trade, what do you owe the world for enjoying the upside? …

Some people suggest, however, that it makes sense to isolate the moral effects of a single new trading opportunity or free trade agreement. Surely we have fellow citizens who are hurt by those agreements, at least in the limited sense that they’d be better off in a world where trade flourishes, except in this one instance. What do we owe those fellow citizens?

One way to think about that is to ask what your moral instincts tell you in analogous situations. Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.

Hat tip to Frank A. Dobbs.


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