Politics & Policy

A Convenient (and Excellent) Truth

The benefits of free trade are settled science. (Although that won't stop the deniers.)

If you question whether global warming is happening, or whether human activity is causing it, or whether it’s worth doing anything about it, then you must be a crack-pot. You are standing athwart the “consensus of scientists.” You are disputing “settled science.” You are a “global warming denier,” the moral equivalent of an apologist for the Nazi holocaust.

But no such accusations are made against the protectionists who question the benefits of free trade among nations. Such people are in fact standing athwart 250 years of economics, and an overwhelming consensus of living economists. These protectionists are denying the enormous gains in standards of living and human freedom that are the direct result of free global trade.

Make no mistake about it. The benefits of free trade are settled science. It goes all the way back to the 18th century, beginning with the path-breaking work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. From then till now, the science of economics has deepened its virtually unanimous embrace of free trade. Today’s best-selling college economics textbook, Macroeconomics by Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw, enshrines among the “ten principles of economics” the axiom that “Trade Can Make Everyone Better Off.”

Indeed it can, and indeed it has. During the last several decades of unprecedented global economic growth we have witnessed increasing global trade and falling trade barriers. For all the worry about “outsourcing American jobs,” the U.S. unemployment rate stands today at a low 4.5 percent. On the other hand, the Great Depression of the 1930s involved a collapse of global trade, triggered by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Back then there was no outsourcing. But the unemployment rate exceeded 20 percent.

Economic theory aside, and real-world results aside, there’s another fundamental argument for free trade. Simply, free trade is a human right. People have an unalienable right to trade with each other as they choose, be they next-door neighbors or half a world apart.

So why is it that when people question the free-trade consensus — when they deny the manifest evidence of its success or challenge its status as a human right — they are not treated like those who question global warming? Question the global warming consensus and you’re something between a fool and a Nazi. But question free trade? Ah … that’s different. That’s politically correct.

Consider the front page article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. It celebrated the courage of a handful of economists — all of whom happen to be politically active — who are “rethinking” and “critiquing” free trade (not “denying,” mind you). Princeton’s Alan Blinder, for example, is saying that, thanks to the new technologies of global trade, “40 million American jobs [are] at risk of being shipped out of the country in the next decade or two.”

Of course, the story’s author doesn’t wonder how this brave rethinker and critiquer can predict the number of job losses 20 years into the future, or why he is silent on the number of new jobs that will be created over the same period. We learn only that “Mr. Blinder’s job-loss estimates … are electrifying Democratic candidates,” and that he is advising the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the issue.

Would Clinton and Obama have been “electrified” if Blinder had estimated that global warming will go away over the next decade or two? It’s doubtful.

A case in point: Last October, liberal senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe sent a letter to the CEO of Exxon Mobil urging him — one might say bullying him — to cut off his company’s funding of a “small cadre of global climate change skeptics,” to cease its “dangerous support of the ‘deniers.’” But when it comes to free trade, the liberals now in control of Congress are only too happy to support the deniers, whether or not they have Alan Blinder’s credentials.

The hypocrisy is undeniable.

To wit, when best-selling author Michael Crichton — who, as a trained doctor, at least has a background in science — questioned global warming while testifying before a Republican-chaired Senate committee, leftist bloggers dismissed him as an “egomaniacal ‘novelist.’” But in  testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade this week, the star witness was CNN’s Lou Dobbs. His qualifications to stand against a 250-year scientific consensus on free trade are … well … come to think of it, he doesn’t have any. He’s just a well-known TV talking head who most nights can be seen ranting against the evils of trade and extolling the virtues of protectionism.

Global warming “deniers” are attacked, not because they stand against a scientific consensus, but because they stand against a powerful liberal special interest group: the environmental lobby. The global-warming threat must be maximized so that environmentalists can keep raising more money and getting more political influence.

Meanwhile, free-trade “deniers” are lionized, despite the fact that they stand against a scientific consensus and because they stand with a powerful liberal special-interest group: unions. Free trade must be opposed, because it means the transformation of traditional union jobs into non-union jobs that are better suited for a dynamic global economy.

So none of this has anything to do with science or scientific consensus after all. And it’s certainly not a matter of promoting prosperity or preserving human rights. It’s just liberal politics. And nowadays, that’s something nobody dares deny.


The Latest