November 10, 2005

Trade Heresies

All those theological disputes in the Middle Ages probably didn't generate half so much heat as the intra-Democratic debate over trade. Why is this? I can see why there are arguments between the various camps, but I've never really understood why liberal "free traders" look bug-eyed at trade-critics as if the latter were lunatics sacrificing sheep to Baal. What is trade, after all? Isn't it just a market for goods and services that happens to use multiple currencies. In that case, it cannot be "free" any more than the U.S. economy can be "free," for obvious reasons. So it's fair game for basic liberal meddling, no?

Most NAFTA liberals support regulations in the "trade" between states, like a federal minimum wage to prevent a race to the bottom, along with environmental and workplace regulations—at the price, no doubt of some "inefficiency." Obviously you want to design these regulations properly, hence the room for dispute, but they're not illegitimate as such. Liberals allow rent-seeking at home, why not across borders? Labor unions here at home, like trade barriers abroad, "distort" the market; the question is who you want to help and why, at what cost. The WTO sucks for the same reason that rule-by-lobbyist over the past thirty years in Washington has sucked. Obviously Milton Friedman would find this reasoning flawed, and maybe the analogy's imperfect here and there, but why so many liberals should find this all the height of heresy is very curious.

P.S. Kash sheds some useful light on the debate here.
-- Brad Plumer 10:48 PM || ||