February 18, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

Free Trade

Traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past.

Lewis Mumford

If you examine a large forest, you will find a wide variety of diverse organisms living and reproducing. One organism kills and eats another. As they say, "It's a jungle out there." Yet the totality of the forest not only survives, but, if there is enough rain, it thrives. Every species in the food chain survives and thrives even though every single organism eventually dies or is killed and gets eaten. Amazing, isn't it?

The theory behind the free trade concept is that if you allow trade to proceed unimpeded, that everything will work out in the long run and everyone will thrive. Even though it is a jungle out there, everyone will do better than if trade is controlled. There is some evidence for this if you look at the failure of Russian communism, and the relative vigor of American and European capitalism.

The only problem is that nobody is in favor of free trade because in a jungle, some animals get eaten. If you happen to be at the lower end of the food (or trade) chain, you might object. For example, US beef producers can produce and ship beef to France for less than a French farmer can produce it. That is true for just about any agricultural product including, horrors, bubbly wine which is called "champagne" since, in France, it comes from the Champagne district.

France has manage to survive without free trade for a long time. Most Frenchmen drive French cars, eat French food, drink French wine. From what I could see when I was in France, there was little of the poverty that afflicts some countries. As a consequence, the concept of free trade doesn't sit well with many French people. However, people are beginning to realize that a Toyota is a better automobile for less money than a Citroen, and a Mercedes is better than a Peugeot. What's more, California wines are as good as French wines. In other words, although their politicians go along with free trade, the people are kicking and screaming as they are going along.

American automobiles have improved considerably in the last 20 or so years. They have improved because the Japanese produced better cars and American manufacturers had to keep up with them. But for that fact, we would still be driving the same cars that we drove 20 years ago. Compare a Briggs and Stratton engine with a Honda and you'll see what I mean. The Honda is a much better value, even though it costs more. How about that?

It should be obvious who profits from free trade: the successful companies and the consumers. Everyone else can not only lose, but can be wiped out.

When the World Trade Organization(WTO) met in Seattle, it was a grand fiasco. As a consequence of the large number of militant protesters, not only was little accomplished, but little was even discussed. Some, such as a large contingent representing organized labor, opposed the WTO because they opposed free trade. I should say that they probably favor free trade for everyone except themselves. Others objected to the slave labor conditions that exist in some third world countries, some objected to genetically engineered foods, and so on. Every organism that felt that it might be eaten objected. Some, I suspect, protested because protesting was their way of life. It is very complicated and I don't pretend to understand it. Come to think of it, I don't really understand what happens in a jungle, and I am a biologist.

It is still a question whether there will ever be free trade. The name will persist, although after all of the competing interests protect themselves from it, the only thing left of free trade may be the name.

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