This piece by Michael Kinsley is presented with the write-off (what Americans call the “lede”) “I’m for free trade but” usually means you’re not for free trade at all. Kinsley makes some good points in the article, demolishing a rather silly NYT Op-ed piece by Charles Schumer and Paul Craig Roberts but his central claim is contradicted by his own observation that
Almost everyone acknowledges some exceptions to the general rule that a nation is better off if it doesn’t try to tell its citizens what they are allowed to buy from or sell to foreigners.
In other words, nearly everyone, including Kinsley, is “for free trade, but”. Kinsley tries to salvage his argument in the next sentence where he says
A free trade butter (FTB) is someone whose exceptions take a big bite out of the rule itself.
(as an aside, I note that the annoying acronym is introduced but not used thereafter). This move won’t work. Who is to decide what is “a big bite” and what is a modest exception, acknowledged by “nearly everyone”, and therefore part of a “reasonable free trade position”?
The point can be made in relation to the issue of trade and labour rights which, as it happens was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts. Kinsley is hopelessly vague on this, as was the article by Kristof to which I referred then. He is open to the notion of
working conditions so wretched and wages so low and practices, like child labor, so heartless that you do want your own government to ban imports of the product at issue, to avoid the taint of association and, with luck, to pressure the exporting nation to change.
, but rejects the idea that American standards of health, safety and wages should apply globally.
These extremes leave a gap wide enough for a Hummer to drive through, and fail to make the distinction between process and outcomes. There is no reason why workers in poor countries should not have the same sort of legal protections and bargaining processes, for example with respect to rights of union representation, as those in rich countries. Given lower levels of productivity the outcomes in terms of wages and conditions won’t be as high as those in rich countries. It’s reasonable to use trade policy as a lever to demand protection of workers rights, but not to exclude imports simply because the people who produced them received low wages.
I haven’t got time to discuss capital movements where, these days, even free-trade stalwarts like Jagdish Bhagwati are in the “but” camp.