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Free Trade is Not Free!

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The tensions between Liberal principles are sometimes too much for politicians and so they take the easy way out. The easy way is to abandon principles and become dogmatically pragmatic. Dogmatic pragmatism is obviously a slippery slope, for pragmatism-although it is as American as apple pie-is not the panacea cure for philosophical or political loggerheads that it sometimes may seem.

The essence of pragmatism is that one should seek "practical" solutions that work rather than half-measures or total misses that conform to preconceived ideas. Trouble is, some preconceived ideas are worth more than others. Principles, for instance, are preconceived ideas that have been fashioned and honed over long years and finally enshrined as worthy and valuable guidance for human affairs.

The other problem with pragmatism is that "what works" for one guy may be quite the opposite for the next. Who is to say which point of view is more credible or important? That's why we have principles as handy measuring sticks against which to gauge our daily efforts in the heat of discussion. A heated discussion these days that affects the soul and substance of the Democratic Party and all Liberals and Progressives is the question of "free trade policy."

The Clintonistas embraced "free trade" as if it were gravity or some other inevitable force of nature. Their acceptance of free trade came on the crest of the declaration that the world's economies were merging under the revolutionary expansion of communications made possible by the computer revolution. At least the appearance looking backward at the semi-isolation of pre-computer, pre-internet, Cold War preoccupations was that a long process of market penetrations had reached a critical point, while "inevitability" and "globalization" were now the watchwords of the day.

The other background circumstance affecting the Clintonistas was the precarious hold they had established on an electoral majority. Reagan was a hugely popular if disgustingly low common denominator politician, whose reign of bombastic demagoguery touched all the chords of economically and socially (and racially) imperiled lower middle class and middle class white Americans. That and the fact that the Great Society welfare programs of the LBJ era were now mired in the predictable abuses and abuse rhetoric one might have expected from years of Republican administration of these programs, Clintonistas were already numb to the centerpiece principle of Liberalism and Progressivism-humane treatment of our citizens. The Clintonistas were ashamed of the failures of the Great Society programs and, yes, this shame easily transferred to the people for whom those programs were designed. So, when the Republicans gained the upper hand in Congress in 1994, not only was the stage set for free trade, but the script tended strongly to ignore the working men and women of the country.

One should ask at this point what is the alternative to "free trade?" The business interests and nascent neocons called the alternative "isolationism." This starkly dichotomous view played to decades of public school instruction and mass media propaganda meant to promote America's part as the "good guy" in a global war for the minds of men, the Cold War against "Godless Communism." To say "isolationism" was to call up almost half a century of plucky (and self-serving) internationalism with all the history of appeasements and depression that preceded it. But the alternative to "free trade" is obviously not isolationism, for it it were then what was the second half of the 20th century if not something quite different from both free trade and isolationism?!

Globalization of commerce is a partial truth. The facts are that many countries are now competing as industrial or mass market agricultural producers, where many fewer were fifty years ago. Globalization does not mean a level playing field, of course. Some countries, like the United States, have built up fabulous infrastructures to support a bewildering array of industrial, agricultural, and service sector industries while maintaining constantly improving medical, educational, cultural, and social systems. Such countries compete with neophyte industrial nations whose only claim to competitiveness is the willingness of workers to work for very low but nevertheless better-than-before wages. These countries do not have the infrastructures to maintain and certainly do not have the standards of living to protect. Corporations from advanced countries exploit this kind of imbalance for short-term profits, completely ignoring the social and physical infrastructure at home that brought these corporations and their headquarters personnel to this possibility.

Barack Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, is full of this kind of pragmatic ignorance. He seems not to understand that "Liberal ideology" is a short way of stating a short and a long list of principles upon which humane and progressive governance should rely for guidance. In fact he dismisses ideology summarily in favor of his own pragmatic approach to issues. (p.59) Obama takes "globalization" at face (popular press and propaganda) value and "free trade" as an inevitability. One reads in his rambling discourse that "free trade" will be good for the workers of America, as if he were a medical doctor diagnosing a patient albeit on the basis of a hurried look and a few words in a high school gymnasium in between soliciting campaign funds. What arrogance this generation of Democrats possesses, what hubris and ignorance! The last thing we need is another Hamlet!

The real costs of "free trade" are not just the individual or the sum of huge personal dislocations of families, the loss of incomes, the loss of precious lifetime, but also the losses incurred to the towns, cities, neighborhoods, and the whole social infrastructure of these people and their places. Until these effects can be measured and a price established, the call for "free trade" that ignores these values is nothing but another corporate slogan, a deception for profit, an immoral abandonment of the very grist and grit of American life.

But what if we could establish the value of a town like, say, "Galesburg?" How would we measure it? Would we dare depreciate its assets as if they were mere emphemera? Would we amortize its decline and destruction, or would we establish present day value and appreciate that to a better future day value, hoping that progress can be maintained? Would we take into account the sum of all taxes invested in infrastructure? How would we put a value on the schools and colleges, the churches and synagogues, the art museum and the baseball park? Could we not agree that businesses have an obligation to take no more from a community than they provide above the cost of labor?

I am not promoting isolationism. The United States is much too important and vital a nation to retreat from the rest of the world behind unnecessary economic protections and political indifference. But, the United States should not be mugged by its own spawn, its transnational businesses and industries. These entities have no right to decide unilaterally that one American community will survive and another one not. These entities are creations not only of soulless capital, but of people who have a necessary and inherent responsibility for the whole, the community and the nation. These are public questions, not private business decisions. The fact that the United States has been organized on principles that have fostered a very high standard of living and opportunity for the many, rather than the few, should not be held against us in a world that is actually striving to achieve similar national results in their own terms. We should not be hostage to our own corporations or those of any other nation.

I am also not promoting a departure from an empirical approach to foreign (or domestic) affairs. Empiricism is not the collection of information to fit some narrow interpretations of reality, but rather a broad synthesis of data whether it supports preconceived ideas or not, a process which always involves a willingness to analyze one's own assumptions and biases.

The Libertarian notion that the world owes its life to entrepreneurship is false and, worse, misleading. Entrepreneurs do not spring full grown out of the ground or surf, they are nurtured in the embrace of a society and culture, and they owe their chance to establish enterprise to the efforts of the many who have gone before them and the many who will put off their own ideas to see the entrepreneur's through to realization. All enterprise is a artifact of society, not of unique individuals. No man is an island entire of itself....

The idea that a greater good is realized by the hidden hand of the marketplace is equally false and misleading. The more apt expression is that greed begets more greed and that a firmament founded in avarice cannot but understand avarice. But make no mistake from this: the accumulation of capital is neither good nor bad, it is simply a possibility when efficiencies can be realized. Efficiencies cannot be allowed, however, which summarily destroy the common wealth, the society, its infrastructure, its culture and life.

The mining of profit from the infrastructure of society to accumulate capital is basically an outrageous theft. The notion of "free trade," therefore, is nonsense, a deliberate obfuscation of the responsibility the government and the people have to preserve and protect the investments we all have made as taxpayers and productive members of society in our our places and lives.
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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