The case against Free Trade
by: Storey Clayton
I spend a lot of time arguing on Facebook. It comes and goes as a use of time. It’s often frustrating, but in the best moments, it feels like there’s a real opportunity to change someone’s mind. Facebook has become this distilled part of the Internet where enough smart, thoughtful people spend enough time that it’s like tapping into a collective town square. The greatest democratic theorists always talked about the proverbial town square, the marketplace of ideas, a place where concepts are freely exchanged and rebutted and synthesized into the best decisions for our future.
Granted, my Facebook feed may be more like this than the average feed. In a world where people talk about their feeds being overly siloed and sectioned off from disagreeing opinions, the majority of my Facebook friends have been associated with APDA, the American Parliamentary Debate Association. This league of collegiate debaters has its flaws, but it does bring together a group of intellectuals who care about persuasion and the future of the planet’s people. And that’s pretty cool.
It also has plenty of people who disagree with me. Then again, the main reason my feed is probably not siloed into people who agree with me is because there are very few such people, if any. There’s a reason my site is called the Blue Pyramid, after all.
Anyway, a recent argument, primarily with some former Boston University debaters, but also with some former Cornell debaters, enabled me to distill a response to one of the most prominent arguments against free trade. And I feel like I want it to be in a more prominent and permanent place than a Facebook sub-comment thread. Both because I live to try to persuade but also because it proves that all the time spent arguing on Facebook doesn’t have to end fruitless with a feeling of unsettled angst. It’s not just wasted time. Even if a lot of it is.
As background, the initial discussion topic was Democrats and leftists, including Bernie Sanders, celebrating Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I am one of those leftists celebrating this, as a lifelong opponent of free trade. We then got into a lot of the reasons I’m against free trade. Part of my case could be the entire book The Shock Doctrine. But I see free trade as problematic for even more reasons than Naomi Klein does. I see it as the proliferation of unfettered capitalism, the system that creates waste and worships waste as a value above all others. It places corporations in a superior position to nation-states – while I’m not a fan of either institution, I’d choose nation-states every time. They at least try to have popularly utile motives, whereas corporations care only about the bottom line.
But I’ve always believed the most damning thing about free trade, especially in its recent incarnations as something that mainstream establishment politicians want to see sweep the globe into one giant market where enormous Western multi-national corporations (MNCs) run wild and free, is that it’s telling a false story about competition. The narrative is that a level playing-field will enable those with the most talent and merit to rise and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. The reality is that the playing-field purported as level is anything but. Free trade is giving some groups a 200-year head-start on a race and then celebrating how fair it is because everyone was allowed to run. Worse, those with all the monetary and power advantages of having been competing in a capitalist marketplace for vastly longer are the ones who write the rules of how the race will be run. The idea that this is passed off on the developing world as a fair fight is laughable.
I got two key counter-arguments in defense of free trade, though, which I want to reprint my responses to because I think they’re the most clear and cogent articulations of my beliefs on this complicated issue that I’ve put forward. And then I’d like to invite y’all to join the debate on this critical issue of our time if you have further counter-arguments.
The first counter-argument questioned, essentially, why I would advocate for protectionist trade when that essentially divides the world and what I ultimately want is a united world under the banner of a more socialist structure. Isn’t free trade a possible stepping stone to a united socialist world? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face here?
Think of it like harm reduction vs. the AA model of addiction cessation.
Ultimately, I want the AA model for capitalism – no capitalism, nowhere. That’s my ideal. I recognize how unlikely it is, but that’s not going to stop me from railing against capitalism my whole life until other people see its flaws too.
But, in the meantime, we can also seek harm reduction. This is why I’ve spent most of my career in non-profits and why I’m not a pure accelerationist. I see protectionist trade as harm reduction. With free trade, the top-dog best-funded MNCs end up owning everything and superseding governments. They are able to make the rules and will turn the globe into an unfettered capitalist wasteland. Protectionist trade, while riddled with innate flaws of capitalism, curbs that outcome that the MNCs so desperately want. It enables some countries to protect themselves and their interests rather than being overrun by greedy colonialists.
Protectionism in America doesn’t really *directly* protect anything I care about, which is why people often assume I believe things I don’t when I align with Bernie and Trump on this issue. I don’t care about the American worker. I care about the Nigerian worker. And if the most powerful country in the world that holds most of the rapacious MNCs takes a big step away from free trade, it extends that trend around the globe, making it more likely the people I care about are saved from free trade’s devastation.
It’s kind of weird, I guess, that I vehemently agree with both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump about the importance of opposing free trade, but not for the reasons they do. But it’s also why the typical rebuttal to economic populism doesn’t resonate with me. People are basically saying “those jobs ain’t coming back, fools!” And it’s true. Automation has killed American manufacturing, permanently. But I don’t care about that. Automation and free trade are both killing everyone’s jobs, pretty quickly, and part of our thread was about the need to develop safeguards in a post-work society. Which, by the way, will not be aided by allowing corporations to sue governments for implementing protections that limit profits. If we need to give universal basic income or benefits or even just the right not to be enslaved by a corporation to former workers who have been edited out of the economy, we will need to tax corporate profits to do that. Both of those things could be clear violations of the TPP as written. This is bad.
But then I got the seminal argument, the one I see most proliferated in defense of free trade, the golden myth propagated by everyone to carry the torch of free trade forward for a new generation. And my response to it was actually liked by the folks asking the questions and arguing against it. If I didn’t change their minds, I at least offered something to give them pause. So this is the main focus of this post and what I want people to think about.
“What do you make of the statistics that show that this sort of trade and development has reduced extreme poverty ($1 or $2 a day) to single digit percentages in 30 years from 60-70 percent, if I’m right…for all its manifest problems? And before industrial capitalism virtually everyone that lived in extreme poverty.”
I feel like what’s being calculated is highly misleading. On a capitalist spectrum, the numbers have slightly increased. But people have traded functional subsistence economies for being enslaved by a capitalist machine that destroys their countrysides and makes them all the property of foreign sweatshop-owners and foreign resource exploiters.
This is a complicated question, but there are a few key points in evaluating this widely propagated (mis)perception of free trade:
1. Comparison to pre-colonialism. The only suitable comparison of current standards of living is to pre-colonial days. Because I see free trade and directly colonial ownership as two phases of the same trend. And if you started with chattel slavery and then went to Jim Crow, you don’t get congratulated because Jim Crow is better than slavery. You get blamed for enslaving people in the first place. Developing world poverty was not an innate state of being as it’s represented as being – it was manufactured by colonialism. A shitty quick fix that puts everyone in the GDP matrix does not count as “lifting people out of poverty”. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on an unending disaster.
2. What is counted. My argument would be that if you’re living in a functional pre-colonial barter economy, or even a somewhat feudal economy, all of your labor and standard of living is invisible to conventional contemporary capitalist metrics. You may be making $0/day because you’re not paid in money or you’re paid in a money worthless compared to the American economy. But this does not mean that your life is awful or that you are even functionally poor relative to your actual sphere. Globalization puts everyone in the same race without recognizing that there are different definitions and perceptions of the good life in other countries and different scales of magnitude.
3. Winners and losers. These averages and things are often calculated with the few robber barons of each developing country factored in. Not only can this skew the math, but it recreates the wealth inequality situation over and over again in societies all over the globe. This is deeply problematic because capitalism tends to recreate its own kind of aggressive feudalism where the few rich people functionally own everyone else in society and can abuse them and get them to do whatever they want. That’s actually somewhat new in the US and it’s giving us Trump, endless government corruption and cronyism, and will eventually replace democracy with kleptocracy. That’s bad for everyone’s quality of life.
4. Materialism. The problem with poverty and quality of life as measured by GDP stats is that it puts the innate value on materialism. The ability to own toasters and cars and other things, regardless of how wasteful and problematic these things are. Are these really necessary for the good life? Refrigeration increases the convenience of your eating experience so you can run back to your 16 hour/day job. But that 16 hour/day job in the West is prompting the world’s largest stream of anti-depressants and people trying to mortgage their schedule to have one day at home where they actually cook a meal and taste their food. How to compare this to a pre-colonial society where people lived on the land, took 3 hours for each meal in a three-generation family under one roof, and took time to appreciate each other as people? It’s a hard question. Capitalism dismisses the latter situation as poverty because it doesn’t cut the mustard in dollars and cents. I think it’s probably objectively a preferable way to live. I don’t see someone being forced out of that to go work in the sweatshop so they can eat processed food that gives them cancer in the middle of a tenement as being “lifted out of poverty”. But that’s how it gets calculated.
5. Access to health care, the internet, etc. This is the one area where I think there may be some ground to argue that modern life and culture does improve quality of life across the board. The problem, though, is that the more unequally things are distributed, the less you can make arguments from this vantage. If socialism were the overriding philosophy, or even protectionist trade, then equal access to improved modern medicine, the internet, and quality education would be priorities. Unfortunately, free trade has created kleptocractic neo-feudalism in most developing countries, meaning that these fundamental improvements are proportionately accessible only to the rich. This is part of why I’m advocating for protectionist trade. If you run the state-run oil company and have some capitalism, you can still use those oil profits to give everyone hospitals, schools, roads, and internet-accessible phones. If it’s everyone for themselves in the MNC-run rat-race, those are only going to be accessible to the people at the top. I think this is the best conduit to improving lives and the best argument for the capitalists. But free trade actively hurts this benefit.
What do you think? Is free trade an unfettered step in our ever-upward trajectory of progress that only Luddites and idiots would oppose? Or is free trade a bill of goods being sold to us by ever-hungrier MNCs controlled by a Singularity-like focus on cancerous growth? Or something in the middle?
I welcome your responses and thoughts. Send me something. Argue with me on Facebook. This is an important discussion to be considering as we face the future.
If you’re connected to me or the debaters I was debating against on Facebook, you can also see:
The original post with all comments
The specific comment thread where we discussed these aspects of free trade at length.