Borrowing Mark’s format from his TV post and attempting to get a conversation started on free trade and markets, I’ve decided to present a list of quick observations on the subject. Keep in mind that I’m a failed economics major and a long-time resident in a fairly left wing university community. Suffice it to say that I’m skeptical of totally unregulated free trade, but I’m open to contrary opinions:
1. The idea that there are simplistic “pro-trade” and “anti-trade” constituencies is inaccurate. Almost everyone favors some form of robust international trade, and recognizes its potential benefits. It would be better to describe the many people who are wary of free trade (as evinced in the Edwards and Huckabee campaigns) or concerned with what they view as certain of its consequences as “trade skeptics.”
2. On the other side, there are plenty of convinced free traders (derisively referred to as neoliberals in left-wing academia) who understand that free trade, for all of its positive consequences, can negatively impact certain people in certain contexts – like American factory workers who lose their jobs and don’t receive adequate compensation or retraining.
3. I believe there’s a broad middle ground of conscientious free traders and trade skeptics who can talk to each other about how international trade should be structured, the ways in which it should be managed, and how its costs can be addressed. Doctrinaire laissez faire capitalists and reactionary anti-traders seem like minority factions.
4. Not everything should be freely traded – like nuclear weapons or endangered animals, to cite two comically extreme examples.
5. It is in the national interest to have access to certain resources and to produce certain products, regardless of how inefficient this production might be. Just as countries should maintain strategic reserves of food and fuel (and ideally currency, but I’d settle for us balancing our budget), they should retain a strategic manufacturing capacity.
6. We need to stop thinking in terms of trade being regulated or unregulated, and start thinking about different types of trade management. The decision not to tax an economic interaction or not to put quotas on imports is just as much an act of regulation as imposing a tax or creating import barriers.
7. By extension, we should abandon the myth of the market as a sentient being whose autonomy should automatically be respected, and who will “speak” to us if we leave her in peace. Marx (who was wrong about a lot of things, but not this) called this “reification” – i.e. the false personification of an economic good or in this case, an entire economic system. Trade and markets are totally artificial human creations and managing or manipulating them for the common good does not amount to violating a sovereign being. We should, of course, recognize the complexity of markets.
8. Thinking of “consumers” and “workers” in isolation from each other is not helpful. The vast majority of people are both. We should acknowledge that the consumer who benefits from free trade by getting access to cheaper goods at places like Walmart (assuming you consider this beneficial) may very well be the same person who’s been laid off from a manufacturing job or seen her salary stagnate as a result of foreign competition resulting from free trade. We have to start thinking in terms of people’s net gains and losses from free trade as both workers and consumers.