The Corner

Trade and The Nation-State

A couple of thoughts on the contention that free trade requires the end of the nation state: 1) This can be taken to mean that truly free trade requires a harmonization of regulatory standards, as in the European Union. I am not at all sure this is true. Different standards may simply become one of the bases of competition. A country with excessively high standards may well find that its companies are at a competitive disadvantage, but that’s a slightly different issue. 2) So let’s turn to that question. Assume that the discipline of trade creates pressure to relax certain regulatory standards, or more generally to change policies. Unless sovereignty is held to entail the ability of national governments to do whatever they like regardless of the consequences–an unconservative and idiotic idea–sovereignty is unaffected. 3) Does the free movement of goods and capital require the free movement of labor? I don’t think so. Conservatives who favor some restrictions on immigration–which is to say, most of them, however libertarian-leaning–tend to regard the question as engaging non-economic considerations to a greater degree than free trade. 4) Do supranational organizations such as the WTO threaten the sovereignty of nations? It is certainly possible for a free-trade agreement to bind nations in advance to the future decisions of some such body, as the Kyoto protocol would. Such provisions should be resisted, and may be enough to make a free-trade agreement worth opposing. But the WTO is, like an alliance, an international rather than a supranational organization; a forum for the exercise of sovereignty rather than a threat to it. If we are held to violate its “rules,” the WTO merely “authorizes” other countries to impose retaliatory tariffs against us–a power they already had without the WTO.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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