Free Trade Is Good, Democrats

Port_of_Seattle.jpgIt's not often that I find myself agreeing with a former Republican party state chair, but Chris Vance is right that Democrats are headed in the wrong direction on the issue of trade. Clinton and Obama made a lot of noise in the primaries about their opposition to NAFTA, but protectionism is not the way to go. And, as Vance notes, Washington has a highly trade-dependent economy, so this is an issue that hits close to home.

Democrats should be leery that our newfound protectionism is shared by Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan, two of the dumbest gut-thinkers around. Lowering trade barriers makes for a more efficient economy and greater prosperity, and protectionist policies--be they tariffs, subsidies, or overly-restrictive licensing schemes--are generally a pyrrhic victory, putting off inevitable changes and enabling us to profit off of the backs of the frozen-out poor.

Supporting free trade doesn't have to mean embracing social Darwinism. Consumers should always push for better treatment in manufacturing facilities, just as negotiatiors should insist on labor and environmental protections. But we should keep in mind that people in developing countries compete to work in sweatshops precisely because it makes for a better life than they had in agriculture. (Of course, one reason their agriculture is so miserable is that it has to compete with the subsidized agriculture of the developed world.)

There are plenty of things to oppose about the way we've negotiated trade pacts. We force other countries to adopt our failed drug policies, insist on unconscionable intellectual property protections (the worst of which involved HIV retroviral drugs in the early oughts), refuse to address our own agricultural subsidies, and maintain ridiculously protectionist licensing schemes in the the white collar professions. (As a member of the bar, I can assure you that a lot of the training and licensing of lawyers is just a way to reduce supply and increase wages.) Above all this, of course, is the issue of how national borders distort the labor market.

We need to accept that a lot of manufacturing jobs won't be returning to the Rust Belt, and that the fairest and most prosperous policy is to adapt to the current world market, rather than trying to return to an old one.

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