Economics

Stuff Your Bloody Corn Laws!

Taking the "free" out of the free market

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President Bush, on further cynical political calculation, has apparently decided to eliminate the steel tariffs he put in place 20 months ago. Threats of foreign retaliation arose after the World Trade Organization objected to the tariffs, states with lots of workers who actually buy steel might have been more upset than states with lots of workers who make steel would have been pleased, and the whole electoral calculation just started to seem too iffy. Goodness knows any actual belief in the rightness and benefits of free trade and free markets had little to do with it.

As has been demonstrated recently both by Tim Cavanaugh here at Reason Online and by David Boaz in the Washington Post, Bush has no particular regard for free markets and limited government. As last week's Medicare expansion, among many other decisions, made clear, Bush is one more in a long line of proud welfare/warfare presidents. His major party opposition merely debates price tags and payment schemes within that consensus for death and taxes; it is unclear whether he'll pay any electoral price for this.

Indeed, the classic-Coke version of a Democratic presidential candidate this election cycle, Dick Gephardt, is actually calling for an international minimum wage, guaranteeing that those poorer than us won't be able to compete with U.S. workers at all. Rarely are anti-free-traders this blatant about how anti-poor their policies are.

Given that being able to sell goods to the highest bidder anywhere on the globe is a vital issue, particularly to poorer workers whose best comparative advantage is the ability to work cheap, why were gaggles of activists who like to portray themselves as fighters for the downtrodden willing to travel the country and spend a jaunty holiday down in Miami at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) meeting, challenging cops who were ready to use batons and rubber bullets and stun guns and gas?

It could be that underneath those giant puppets the activists are really Cobden-and-Bright types, mad about government-managed trade and trying to get what's best for workers, women, and racial minorities of all varieties: the ability to work with and sell to all comers. Maybe they are aware that trying to stymie international trade in general is the surest way to impoverish the underprivileged, and are, under the guise of being generally anti-capitalist, playing into the interests of big corporate sugar and steel interests.

Then again, maybe not. Certainly, some of the organized anti-FTAA types are merely using it as an excuse to complain about the usual list of race and gender complaints that dominate the post-communist left.

Most decisions regarding free trade—be they actual government policies or citizen street-fighting—have little to do with any particular beliefs in the rightness and benefits of free trade. I was recently down in South Florida talking to some old friends connected with the rowdier elements of the recent demonstrations. They told me that many of the rowdiest of the rowdies were there for the sheer joy of being where the action was—always looking for a chance to break a window and taunt a cop—and neither knew nor cared a whit about either the obvious or subtle issues of international trade. Those same friends amused themselves by coming up with some pro-free trade placard slogans to spice up the mix, my favorite being "Stuff Your Bloody Corn Laws," since it brings some much-needed historical perspective and sense of absurdity to the fight in the streets.

The problems that free trade has faced eternally are well limned by the recent decisions of both President Bush and those kids—oh so contemptuous of him—fighting in Miami: Most people would rather pursue some obvious short term benefit for themselves, whether in electoral politics or some rioting fun, than consider the more subtle and long term good both for themselves and the world.