July 12, 2004

Free Trade!

You know, free trade is at once extremely common and the worldwide consensus from government to government around the world is quite strongly in favor of more open and freer trade, at least in theory. Support becomes even stronger when you ask foreigners if America should have unilateral (one-sided) free trade with their countries. People want the exchange of goods and services - the flow of welath, jobs and capital into their countries - that comes with increased trade. Unfortunately, Democrats are more than happy to scale back or break this vital commitment to the world while they have the nerve to talk about forging international cooperation and community.

Remember the steel tariffs Bush put in 2001? They were found in violation of the GATT (a treaty system Americans originally devised) in the WTO court system. Europe strongly disliked the tariffs, calling them unfair and illegal and so forth. But you don't hear a lot of criticism of John Kerry's new found fair trade beliefs from the Democrats, certainly nothing about how offended our allies would be if we were to pull back jobs and capital from their countries.

Clinton and the New Democrats were and are pretty big free traders, although it's easy enough for them to include lip service rhetoric to "labor and environmental standards" nowadays. This was, ultimately, part of the left's attempt to jump the gap between the unions, taxes, welfare state policies and protectionism into professionals, balanced budgets, welfare reform and internationalism. The Republicans successfully pursued free trade starting with Reagan, who signed our country's first free trade agreements (Israel in 1985, Canada in 1988) as part of his worldwide 'Democratic Revolution" and market reforms.But Republicans had favored markets, capitalism and the entrepreneurial system way back to their founding and before, when the Free Soil Party advocated what it called 'free labor' - the exaltation of individual labor in a free market as opposed to southern slave labor.

What makes this interesting, is that ultimately the Republicans were always largely appealing to the middle class, and Democrats appealed to the very rich, and the poor, including immigrants. The system is largely in the same state today, with some changes admittedly. Clinton made an effective campaigner because he took the base of the Democrats - the quite rich, the working class and the poor - and reached out to the middle class more effectively. Now granted, there were most undoubtedly many middle class Democrats, but this was never the most loyal area for Democrats, and usually the most loyal area for Republicans.

Clinton picked up issues that mattered to the middle class so he could seem credible to an electorate the shot down Dukakis, disliked Carter and smashed Mondale. He consolidated on social issues, but mostly he tried to appeal to them with balanced budgets, NAFTA and the "Reinventing Government" thing. He tried to recapture some of the economic center and thereby seem responsible and reasonable to the middle class.

Of course, unions hated what they saw as a betrayal by their patrons, whom they expected to oppose any threat to their jobs and well being (leaving aside larger moral arguments they might have advanced). But they stayed for fear that the GOP would cut entitlements, expand free trade faster, cut taxes deeper, and not raise the minimum wage (at least not as quickly). The mindset of noblesse oblige is always somewhat pliable and hardly radical, so they followed him for his social opinions and the fact that he was their party's man. The rest followed suit either complaining or cheering and Clinton captured enough of the middle class to win. Ultimately, it was unions that got left out and the middle class that was promoted within the Democrats' priorities.

So back to free trade itself. Kerry, Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, almost the whole Democratic crew is trying to move back toward fair trade (which is code for anywhere from mild to severe protectionism) without rocking the boat too heavily. The message is clear: they have no clear message. Okay, but they are trying to work it so they can get the fair trade/anti-trade vote back more loyally in their pocket and compete in Rust Belt and "less than high school" demopgraphics. Simultaneously, they want to woo the middle class by holding onto those tax cuts and not being explicitly against trade.

The result is John Kerry saying he might want to renegotiate CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, despite the fact that it was negotiated with sovereign democratic countries that know increased trade will bring increased capital and revenue. His election concerns have put him in the awkward position of threatening the historic economic policies of our allies and neighbors. The Kerry campaign is just wrangling between the middle class, the unions, the Bush campaign, his primary challengers, the fair trade left, and the international concensus for free trade.

Since he stands for nothing, he is trying to avoid upsetting anyone. How long until these sides (absent the Bush Campaign, which obviously wants to do whatever it can to paint Kerry as incompetent, retarded and one step above Nixon) realize that Kerry doesn't owe any of them allegiance, and will sell out some or all of them for other concerns?

Free trade is a yardstick for other beliefs. It measures one's social conservatism, since markets do not guarantee tradition, custom or security and freuqently disrupt old orders; it measures one's economic liberalism (capitalism) in allowing goods and capital to move over what can be very long distances, often scary to those accustomed to government-guaranteed economic security. It measures one's internationalism, since in all likelihood money and jobs will be in flux between countries just as they are between US states today. Ultimately, it measures whether you favor security or liberty and wealth creation or wealth manipulation (or redistribution).

John Kerry is backpedlaing his party on free trade just like he's backpedlaing on spending - recommending Gephardtian advances in the welfare state with socialized medicine, massive regulation, subsidization and even partial nationalization of the transportation infrastructure, and massive growth in the Homeland Security and Defense Departments. In other words, Kerry is trying to slowly work back into the old coalition between the condescending rich and the self-serving unions. Big government, more regulation, and restricted markets. He doesn't want to piss off the center and the middle class while he does it, but he wants to bring it back.

Free trade is just the symbol of Kerry's cautious lack of trust for the market system and for what individuals and entrepreneurs will do given the freedom to act. That's why no self-respecting libertarian should vote for him, even in protest.

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