Sunday, April 01, 2007

The missed opportunity of free trade

In a great post at Rad Geek People's Daily, Charles Johnson examines the response in The Nation to story about illegal immigrant workers, and offers a nice takedown of those on the left who wave the banner of the "working class" while calling for the state to take away opportunities from poor and working-class people from the wrong country. Best part:

Among the worst of the lot, because they are the most insidious, are those who propose walling off labor at national borders in the name of labor solidarity, and attempted to tie nativist policy in with pseudo-populist economics. But of course international apartheid does nothing to benefit workers as a whole; at the most, it only benefits the most privileged working folks...

Those who consider native-born American workers more important or more deserving of an opportunity to work without being shot or jailed, just for having been born here, would do well to shut the hell up about the working class and just admit that they are not Leftists but rather belligerent nationalists.

Be sure to read all of it.

This puts me in mind of another discrepancy between the professed ideals of many on the left and the actual policies many of them support, in the area of free trade. A common argument against free trade is that it will supposedly cause wealth and jobs to flow from America to other, poorer countries, enriching them at our expense. I don't think that's true, but it's a common idea.

I'm not surprised that hardcore nationalist types who believe this to be true would oppose trade because of it. If you're largely indifferent to the well-being of people outside your own nation-state, the last thing you'll want to do is lower the wages of some Americans to provide jobs to starving peasants on the other side of the planet. Say what you want about this position, it makes internal sense.

Now, a lot of anti-trade leftists have other stated reasons for opposing trade. (Dependency theory and so on.) I think they're mistaken, but they're not included in what follows. However, in my experience, a lot of avowedly internationalist leftists oppose free trade for the same reason right-wing nativists do- because it will supposedly hurt the American economy by sending American jobs and wealth to other, poorer countries. But, based on the avowed beliefs of many of these people, that ought to be precisely what they want.

After all, what do many of them speak in favor of? Internationalism. Redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. Using the riches of the West to help those in need around the world. If what these people believe about free trade is true, it should be a slam dunk for left-wing causes.

Now, anti-trade leftists are hardly the only people who don't follow through on their own professed ideals. But it's interesting, and disappointing, to see how readily this segment of the left seems eager to reject (or not even notice) something that could greatly further their values. The reasons for it are probably complex, and I can think of several besides this one, but I'm sure part of it is the same sort of nationalism Johnson talks about in the context of immigrant labor. Talk and talk and talk about helping workers as a class, until faced with the prospect of competition from workers outside America.

There is a bit of hope: in college I convinced a left-leaning fellow student of the value of free trade on essentially leftist, redistributionist grounds. I think Brad DeLong may have taken a position something like this, if memory serves. So, it may be possible to win some left-wing support for free trade by showing how, even if libertarians are wrong about it's mutually beneficial character, it's still better in accord with left-wing values than protectionism. I'm not hugely optimistic about how many people that would win over, but it would be worth trying.

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