How does one resolve the question of the presumably cataclysmic meeting between the hitherto immovable rock and the historically unstoppable force? Perhaps by reversing the logic of the famous question: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Is the rock truly immovable? Or, alternatively, is the force actually unstoppable?
I mention this because I have long been a vocal advocate of free trade. I was raised on Adam Smith, inoculated against the usual collegiate flirtation with Marxism by controlled doses of Schumpeter taken in combination with “Das Kapital” and “The Communist Manifesto,” and eventually found in the Austrian School of von Hayek, von Mises and Rothbard an intellectual home.
My first serious questions about the free-trade doctrine arose during the NAFTA debates. The fact that Democrats and Republicans were coming together in bipartisan support made me suspicious, as bipartisanship is a reliable sign that the American people are about to get screwed over in a big way, and it seemed very strange that a genuine free-trade agreement would require documentation exceeding the size of the average encyclopedia.
Thirteen years later, the honest observer is forced to admit that it is the opponents of NAFTA whose predictions have been proven to be correct. Free trade has not improved the Mexican economy enough to dissuade millions of Mexicans from coming to America, it has not improved the American wage rate and it has significantly reduced American industrial capacity. The base concept behind Smith’s doctrine of free trade is a nation that stops protecting its inefficient sectors will turn its resources toward those sectors in which it has a genuine competitive advantage – apparently selling houses to each other is America’s great strength.
Moreover, the recent history of the European Union demonstrates that free trade is the sheep’s skin that clothes a very savage wolf indeed. The European Common Market was sold to the people of the formerly independent nations of Europe as a free-trade arrangement, and while it has not significantly benefited the economic welfare of those nations, it has managed to subjugate them to an unelected commission that rules over them, taxes them and from whose ever-more-invasive dictates they enjoy no appeal.
Can trade be free when the people aren’t?
Now, it is certainly possible to argue that the free trade of the NAFTA variety is actually nothing of the sort and that the Third Way social engineering of the European Union is wholly distinct from the free-trade doctrine from which it was birthed. In fact, this is precisely how I have previously attempted to resolve the dilemma.
However, that reasoning is all-too similar to that of the public-school teachers who insist that merely spending more money on teachers will lead to better public schools, and socialists who argue that despite dozens of failed historical examples, the One True Method of communism has not yet been applied. At some point, even the most lovely theory has to pass the more prosaic test of practice or else be relegated to the children’s nursery of daydreams and wishful thinking.
I am not arguing, yet, that it is time to do so with regard to free trade. However, for the first time in years, I find myself forced to re-examine the merits of this long-hallowed doctrine, and to do so with a jaundiced and critical eye. It is certain that there are false prophets of free trade – that they exist neither confirms nor denies that the god itself is false.
The deeper question is this: In a globalist world that denies not only the sovereignty of the nation-state, but even its right to exist, is there any fundamental relevance to a doctrine that is defined by the asserted benefit to the nation-state and its citizens? If there is no nation-state and there is no freedom for the individual, then where is the free trade and to whom does it apply?