Whither the Free-Trade Left?


Glenn Reynolds writes:

[L]iberals are supposed to support the idea of taking money from the rich, and giving it to the poor redistributing wealth to those most in need. And by the standards of most of the world, all Americans ? even those who work in factories, or at Wal-Mart ? are rich. (Which is why, of course, people from lots of other countries are so anxious to come here and work at Wal-Mart.) An American who loses a job, even if he or she stays unemployed and winds up on welfare, is still rich by global standards. So you might think that the proper liberal attitude toward job exports would be, "Bring 'em on!" But it?s not.

Maybe that's true, but if it's true, I think it's less true than it used to be. My evidence is entirely anecdotal, but as someone who used to write the occasional free-trade screed for a lefty website, I find it far more common these days to encounter free-traders who identify themselves with the Left, or who see the slashing of rich-world tariffs and subsidies as one of the shortest routes for fulfilling their youthfully lefty ideals.

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  1. j bradford delong has been a consistent free trade advocate. so has charlene barshefsky, doug henwood and foreign policy mag… and oxfam for that matter.

  2. Maybe I’m missing something. I thought the liberal position was to help the poor at the expense of the rich. If we just argue comparative advantage, rich people and poor people benefit from free trade.

    The effect of both rich and poor benefitting should be unacceptable from a modern liberal prospective, because such an effect exacerbates the wealth disparity (rich people will benefit more in absolute dollars).

    Modern liberalism isn’t about helping the poor, it is about having control of where money is to be spent (economic democracy, I think they call it), and I wouldn’t think the free trade would help them there.

  3. Make that ‘perspective’. One day, I’ll use the preview button …

  4. Interesting POV. All those posting here who would like their jobs exported to whereever please raise your hands ? I hear they have a couple of nascent libertarian think-tanks in New Delhi. Any libertarians want to help those third-worlder’s out ?

  5. Proposition 1: I would prefer that people give their money to me, rather than to someone else who’s willing to do my job for less.

    Proposition 2: It would be right for me to force people to give their money to me, rather than to someone else who’s willing to do my job for less.

    I’m stil shocked by the number of people who seem not to grok that proposition 1 does not entail proposition 2.

  6. Very clever. Now if only people who jobs are in danger of being exported would see the light.

  7. Remember the phrase “enlightened self-interest”? It’s sometimes used by leftists who claim (rightly or wrongly) that various foreign aid or domestic social programs will reduce the incidence of crime, disease, terrorism, or some other problem that could potentially affect the well-being of middle-class Americans.

    (Please don’t jump all over me for describing this notion without ardent denunciations.)

    Well, many aspects of free trade would improve living conditions in developing countries, and hopefully (with all due disclaimers noted) reduce the incidence of war and disease (e.g. AIDS) that might directly or indirectly affect Americans. So it makes perfect sense that a leftist might see free trade as a market-based version of enlightened self-interest.

    (Insert all necessary disclaimers, such as “leftists are nonetheless evil”, “free trade is really just a ploy to benefit mercantilist interests”, “thoreau isn’t a purist libertarian so we should disregard what he says”, etc.)

  8. Anon 1:45 :

    I sell hotdogs on 1st St. for $8.00 each, earning myself a ‘living wage’. You sell hotdogs on 2nd St. for $2.00 each.

    Do I get to prevent you from selling hotdogs to our neighbors to save my job? I’d hate for my job to be shipped to 2nd Street.

    What about the people who buy hotdogs? I mean, a single mother of four can feed her whole family with 2nd St. Dogs for the same price she can feed only herself at my stand.

    At some point, I have to admit that I am charging too much for dogs. I can drop my price to be competitive, or realize that you are better at it than I am, and can consequently feed more people for less.

  9. “The effect of both rich and poor benefitting should be unacceptable from a modern liberal prospective, because such an effect exacerbates the wealth disparity (rich people will benefit more in absolute dollars).

    Modern liberalism isn’t about helping the poor, it is about having control of where money is to be spent (economic democracy, I think they call it), and I wouldn’t think the free trade would help them there.”

    Sheesh. Way to define your enimies in obviously repulsive terms.

    The currently most popular egalitarian philosopher of “modern liberalism” is John Rawls. He fomulated what he called the “difference principle”: It says that differences in wealth are acceptable only when they benefit the least well-off group.

    My point here is not get you to agree with Rawls. I just want to point out that a policy that benefits the poor some and the rich a lot satisfies the difference priniple, while one the hurts the poor a little but the rich a lot, leading to greater absolute equality, does not satify the differnce principle.

    In other words: Your strawman does not exist!!!! Okay, in country with 280 million people, may you can find 280 who do believe what ascribe to “modern liberals”. But I am sure there is a much larger percentage of affirmative action opponents who are flat-out racist then there are liberals who would hurt the poor just for greater equity.

  10. Decnavda:

    I’m familiar with Rawls and the maximin principle, and I believe you have weakened it for the sake of argument. Rawls didn’t say that such and such a policy had to benefit the least well off, he said that the policy should MAXIMIZE the benefit of the least well off (hence the name).

    What happens vis a vis Rawls is that trade might help the poor a little, but since the essence of Rawls is equity, taking from some to give to others is much better. If I were Rawls, I would ask, “free trade is good, but compared to what?”

    I would also argue that most modern liberals do not perceive any harm to the poor by taking from some to give to others, while others simply argue that you can get a greater benefit to the poor by looting than by any other method (see Galbraith for this theme). To promote free trade as an modern liberal measure, you would have to argue that the benefits TO THE POOR are greater than they would be if you simply take a couple $billion from Bill Gates and give it to them. This may be the case, but it is difficult to prove.

  11. Julian,

    There is a very large segment of liberals who literally do not understand the difference between making a value judgment, and calling on the state to impose that judgment on the world. If you think accidental gun deaths are bad, you MUST be for gun control. If you think some kinds of expression are distasteful, you MUST be for “censorship.”

    I once saw Gloria Allred on some talking head show where somebody criticized an irreverent picture of the pope on a billboard. Despite their strenuous denials of any intent to censor it by law, she said that by criticizing it they were “censoring it by the backdoor.”

    The idea that any preference or desire does not automatically translate into coercive state action, apparently, is inconceivable to them.

    I’m not saying this is true of all liberals–but for the mediocrities who advance that viewpoint in the world of journalism, it certainly seems to be.

  12. What ivory-towered profs like IP don’t understand about unemployment isn’t that it’s just a financial hardship on the worker, but that it also harms the dignity, the “manhood” if you will, of the person out of work. Jobless “recoveries” can be a bitch, and nothing is more frustrating to the person out of work, or to the person working at some grim, low wage job, than to be told that they are lucky for what they got, and that someone in the Third World would do the same thing for less. Of course, it’s easy to be a free trader when you’re a law prof; Knoxville isn’t going to farm out the position to Laos if Prof. Reynolds doesn’t like his wage. In any event, lets reserve the phrase “bring ’em on” for neoconservative foreign policy debacles, not trade disputes.

  13. Jason Ligon,

    Thanks for the econ 101 crammer. Can’t say as i disagree with it. But the original post was on quote liberal attitude toward job exports unquote.
    I doubt that anybody, liberal, rightwing, libertarian or x-man, can be expected to realistically hold any other attitude than alarm. At first. As to how one responds – that’s a different issue.

    Notwithstanding Julian’s emotional perturbation, why is it that people like him always expect OTHERS to be magnanimous in downsize ? Here’s looking forward to the day that policy, legal and econometric hackwork can be done from Katmandu. Not really, but i suspect that these discussions may suddenly acquire an existential complexity that’s currently forbidden by decree.
    Hope your hot dog stand works out.

  14. The theory that the poor deserve what have gotten because they aren’t willing to put forth the effort like the Bushes of Texas have done is insane. We are all human and all deserve a shot at the American dream. I lived in Texas and saw the hypocracy first hand. Texans believe that they are God’s people and do not have to answer to the nation because it is them against us. The right steals from the poor and slides the cash into Swiss bank accounts, the left steals from the rich and does the same. The poor are left wondering why they are so dumb as to not be able to feed their families. Disgusting!

  15. The idea that protectionism is in the custody of the left is as flawed as the policy itself. The right is equally opposed a free market.

    The left and the right vie for power. The both seek to expand the size and scope of government. They form the debate as a question of whether it’s better to have ‘us’ or ‘them’ in control. But it is heterodox to speak of allowing the people to retain control of their own purse-strings.

    I believe that free trade advocates on the left are more interested in opposing the right. To hear free trade arguments coming from the left would only be surprising if the left was in power. After all, what happened to all the free traders on the right? Where is the opposition to steal tariffs, farm subsidies, etc?

  16. Glenn Reynolds makes me puke.

  17. A good deal of the pro-free trade comment from the liberal/left, today, is from the likes of George Soros whose “free trade” advocacy comes couples tariff reduction with heavy international governance and state subsidization of trade. This is consistent with the observation of Janson Ligon that: “Modern liberalism isn’t about helping the poor, it is about having control of where money is to be spent”

    If more of the liberal/left, particularly those in power, actually took seriously the Rawls “difference principle”, as cited by Decnavda, economic statism might not extract as hideous a toll. But, the idea is not close to being an underpinning of modern liberal policy implementation.

    Matt’s link to Johan Norberg’s site, as an example of one who “see(s) the slashing of rich-world tariffs and subsidies as one of the shortest routes for fulfilling their youthfully lefty ideals.” seems a little misplaced since, as Norberg points out in his strong and enjoyable new book “In Defense of Global Capitalism”, the ideals of his youth were of a anti-authority/anarchist nature.

    Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

  18. …Make that,”the obervation of Jason Ligon”. Sorry about that Jason.

  19. …free trade advocates on the left are more interested in opposing the right.

    Possibly. But that’s certainly not true in my case. I’ve always been a free trade advocate. And although I quite firmly believe in comparative advantage; it’s also the case that I’m also all for jobs and capital moving from the wealthy countries to the poor countries.

    Frankly, I find the anti-globalization left’s arguments to be either sickeningly patronizing of the developing world, or shockingly protective of a (relatively) wealthy American’s job at the expense of 10 very poor Mexicans’ jobs.

    So, there are the sort of people on the left that Reynolds thinks doesn’t exist. There’s just not that many of us.

  20. I was involved in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, and more recently during the first Gulf War.
    It was strange to go to antiwar meetings in the 1990s and hear leftists talk about the threat of cheap imports from China and Vietnam.
    But I also did find some peaceniks who understood that trade is progressive.

  21. Steve Smith,

    The problem is, what most neoliberals call “free trade” isn’t free trade at all. It’s government intervention on behalf of TNCs.

    REAL free trade would eliminate a lot of existing subsidies to the export of capital (read, the export of jobs). The World Bank, for example, serves mainly to finance infrastructure projects that Western capital needs to locate plants in the Third World. Add to that the massive subsidies to trucking, airlines, railroads, and merchant marines–all of them ways of underwriting the cost of shipping goods back into the U.S.

    To quote a line from Firesign Theater: “I ain’t free–Ise mighty expensive!”

  22. I think folks are confusing Ronald Reagan’s zeal for free trade with Republican orthodoxy.

    Support for free trade has a long tradition in both parties — it is one of the few things about which the editorial pages of the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal rarely disagree. Free trade offers the prospect of greater opportunity for poor nations, export opporunities for American industries, lower prices for American consumers, and an international economic order that the United States can expect to dominate: something for everyone.

    Everyone, that is, except those on whom free trade imposes immediate costs. Less competitive industrial concerns, dairy farmers, union members and many others hold the benefits of freer trade in low esteem next to the risks it poses for their respective ways of life. Support for protection has a long tradition in both parties too. For most of the last half century it has been a minority tradition; during the Reagan years, the years of the Japanese economic ascendancy, support for protection probably had majority support in the Democratic Party, but the Reagan administration was fiercely committed on the other side.

    George W. Bush is not Ronald Reagan. Free trade for him is not a firm principle but only a vague preference. Lacking leadership from their President, Republicans have come to reflect the uncertainty a changing world economy is creating among their constituents. Support for liberalizing trade across the board has probably passed its peak in the United States.

  23. OK, I owe Julian Sanchez an apology. Seems he was taking a swipe at insta-idiot, not being insensitive to the plight of the outsourced.
    Sheesh !

  24. Kevin Carson’s point that,

    “The World Bank,(and) the massive subsidies to trucking, airlines, railroads, and merchant marines (cause the) the export of jobs”

    is important and should be used as a strong argument to de-fund the World Bank and the subsidies.

  25. “My evidence is entirely anecdotal…”

    I think it could be a self-selection issue (like the ‘libertarians for Dean’ thing)…as great as it would be if lefties were all coming around to free trade, I just don’t think it’s the case. The hard-core lefties I know are still talking about ‘fair trade’, equalizing human rights and environmental standards abroad so that everyone everywhere in the world can make a living wage, and so on and so forth. Little or no recognition that all of the jobs will disappear if we force a ‘living wage’ upon them (unless they are a union member or backer, in which case this is of course what they want).

    Anon 1:45 – you were right the first time. Julian is cutting on protectionists, not on Instapundit.

  26. EMAIL:
    DATE: 02/01/2004 05:40:10
    There are as many translators as there are humans.

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