Mute applause for free-trade deals
Uncle Sam is negotiating a free-trade agreement with several European countries and another with various Pacific Rim countries. Such agreements deserve applause because they generally make trade freer — and, hence, make the people in countries party to these agreements richer. This applause, however, should be muted.
In an ideal world, there would be no free-trade agreements because governments would never have grabbed the power to obstruct trade in the first place. Americans would be just as free to trade with non-Americans as with fellow Americans. Ditto for citizens of other countries. In that ideal world, the notion that voluntary exchanges across national borders are somehow less beneficial or more economically risky than are voluntary exchanges within national borders would be seen as the preposterous superstition that it is.
But our world isn't ideal; it is infected with too much political direction of people's lives. So it's an unfortunate fact that the baseline against which free-trade agreements should be evaluated isn't a world where people are free to trade as they judge best, but rather a world where people seeking to trade peacefully with foreigners are laden with all manner of high taxes and heavy burdens.
In short, although all free-trade agreements are stuffed full of provisions that keep trade from being fully free, most such agreements make trade freer than it would be otherwise — a feature deserving some applause.
Think of gangs of young men who routinely kill and maim each other in street fights. No benefit comes from such fights — save the fleeting glory that gang culture bestows on two-bit street warriors.
Now suppose that some members of these rival gangs wise up a bit and agree to rules that will reduce but not eliminate the fighting. Gang leaders might meet in a neutral neighborhood and bargain for hours toward an elaborate agreement in which each gang agrees never to fight on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and also to never use switchblade knives longer than 6 inches. The gangs, though, reserve the privilege of fighting each other on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and with any weapons other than long switchblades.
Most people would applaud the above agreement between gangs to diminish their fighting. This accord might be called a “no-fighting agreement” — even though a great deal of fighting is permitted by the agreement. Yet even the most sincere applause for this “no-fighting agreement” would in no way imply that it is ideal.
Everyone of good sense and common decency understands that the ideal agreement would be one that stops the fighting altogether, an agreement far less wordy than the so-called “no-fighting agreement” that admits many exceptions.
The analogy of street gangs that fight to governments that impose trade restrictions isn't perfect. But it does serve well to highlight the reality that our standards for government behavior aren't much higher than are our standards for the behavior of violent street gangs.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Steelers’ Harrison awaits go-ahead from Tomlin before practicing
- 4 ejections, benches-clearing scrum mark Pirates’ win over Reds
- Slot cornerback Boykin should give Steelers options in secondary
- Pittsburgh airport improvements noted as CEO tries to expand activity
- Pa. breeding ground for corruption, experts say
- Inside the Steelers: Roethlisberger strong in goal-line drills
- Developers share their vision for Garden Theater block on North Side
- Pirates notebook: Burnett says ‘surgery is not an option’
- Zimbabwe alleges Murrysville doctor illegally killed lion
- Tax fight brews among Southwest Greensburg business owners, landlords
- Steelers notebook: WR Bryant sidelined after minor procedure on right elbow