National Security & Defense

A Free Trader’s Argument against TPP

Shipping containers at the Port of Oakland, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Contrary to the familiar talk-radio ranters going on about “Obamatrade,” there is nothing wrong in principle with fast-track trade-promotion authority (TPA) or the process by which the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was negotiated. Yes, there was too much secrecy in the negotiations, the document produced is too large and too complex, and there are too many things folded into what ought to be a relatively straightforward (if necessarily complex in its details) accord on lowering barriers to trade and harmonizing national policies that interfere with it. The problem isn’t the TPP in principle; it is, as it turns out, the TPP in fact.

As per the congressional writ, the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has now for some time been available for congressional and public review. (It was whispered, darkly, that Congress would vote to approve the accord without ever making its text public, but that was never actually in the offing.) There is much to be said in favor of TPP, and in favor of generally liberalizing trade among the mainly rich and trade-oriented parties to the deal. (Donald Trump, who often is confused about these things, seems to believe that China is a TPP member; it is not.) But there are aspects of the released text that suggest very strongly that the benefits of approving TPP as is are not worth the costs. It is, as always, a question of trade-offs, and we should probably take a pass on this one.

Prominent among the reasons to look askance at TPP is that its text calls for the incorporation — sight unseen — of whatever global-warming deal is negotiated at the conference currently under way in Paris. It is one thing for a trade deal to incorporate changes to environmental practices — regulatory differences are an inhibitor of truly liberal trade — but there is a world of difference between incorporating specific environmental policies and incorporating environmental policies to be named later.

There are aspects of the released text that suggest very strongly that the benefits of approving TPP as is are not worth the costs.

It would be preferable if we could simply enact a series of bilateral “Goldberg treaties,” so called in honor of my colleague Jonah Goldberg, who argued that an ideal free-trade pact would consist of one sentence: “There shall be free trade between . . . ” But the unhappy reality is that the snouts of the nations’ sundry regulatory apparatuses are so far up the backsides of various industries and economic sectors that sorting them out requires thousands of pages of text. Consider, for example, the problem of defense-acquisition practices. Some countries have rules mandating that defense procurement be restricted to domestic firms, and some countries don’t. Coming up with a harmonized, one-size-fits-all approach is difficult; we Americans, accustomed as we are to operating in an economy that produces the best of almost everything in the world, sometimes forget that there are countries with no domestic aerospace industry or sophisticated manufacturers of military materiel. Of course Kuwait goes abroad for military gear; if memory serves, at one point their air force uniforms were made by Armani.

RELATED: How the TPP Would Help America’s Poor

To each his own military-industrial complex. Likewise, environmental realities vary greatly from country to country. The United States is rich, and Switzerland is rich, but Switzerland’s economy is dominated by banking and finance, and its heavy-manufacturing end is typified by . . . Rolex. The United States, on the other hand, produces some 19 million barrels of refined petroleum products a day, more than any other country. That’s a very different carbon footprint.

#share#All of which is to say, we should expect trade deals, especially multi-lateral trade deals, to be complex, and we should expect environmental and labor standards, along with government procurement procedures and the like, to be part of the accord. There’s no getting around it. And, again, there is nothing wrong in principle with using trade accords, which have real economic bite, as a critical instrument for enforcing environmental rules and other regulatory reforms that are incorporated into trade relationships. But using TPP to commit the United States to whatever is cooked up in Paris, without an additional vote in Congress, is a poor tradeoff. It’s not often that I will turn up my nose at a trade deal — even far-from-perfect trade pacts are generally desirable — but here we should draw the line. TPP was negotiated, Congress and the public have had a chance to review the text, and Congress should reject it. That’s the system working, not the system failing to work. It’s why we have votes.

RELATED: What’s Next for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

But the business of liberalizing global trade remains of critical importance. The problem for American trade liberalizers is that we are a tiny minority. Democrats and the Left reject trade liberalization in principle, though the occasional wily operator will swallow some trade reform if it is (as TPP is) larded up with sufficient progressive goodies. And much of the Right does a fair impersonation of a hypnotized chicken when the subject of trade comes up. Parochial business interests, particularly in agriculture, prize their subsidies above any principle or notion of the genuine national interest, while those on both sides of the partisan divide who insist that our current economic straits simply must be a result of the predations of scheming foreigners cannot see how making trade less expensive would make Americans better off. This sort of ignorance is, unhappily, quite nearly invincible.

#related#Which is why my preferred Plan B — unilateral free trade — is, politically speaking, a DOA proposition. I simply reject the notion that free people should have to ask the permission of, well, anybody before they can buy ordinary goods from whomever they like, including producers in China, India, Poland — or on Mars. Free trade is a human right, and the presumption that government has the inherent privilege of telling you with whom you may or may not trade is a monarchical vestige. Those of you who know your Bastiat know that sensible free-trade policy looks at the question from a consumer’s point of view rather than from the point of view of entrenched interests and market incumbents, but a great many aspects of U.S. policy would be different if American voters were Bastiat-style liberals.

Things being as they are, accords like TPP are probably the only way to move forward with trade reform. But “like TPP” isn’t the same thing as “TPP,” and not every deal that gets done is worth doing. So it’s back to square one.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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