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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Necessity of Free Trade:

The far right and the far left agree when it comes to protectionism. They think that trading with other countries only 'enriches the fat cats' at the expense of everyone else, and world trade organizations are part of some oligarchic conspiracy to enslave the world. The first thing the far right would do when it comes to power would be to slam the gates on all international commerce. And, of course, the first thing that would cause is an economic depression followed by a world war. The dangers of leaving things in the hands of the ruling power pale before the dangers of risking rule by a Green, Communist, Libertarian or Nationalist opposition third party, so long as they stick to their atrocious pet theories that would all spell doom for the modern economy.

North Korea has one of the highest average IQ's in the world, but is also one of the poorest countries in the world. This makes no sense until you realize it doesn't engage in free trade. North Korea believes in self-subsistence, in rugged individualism, and wants no part in dealings with the outside world. And because of its belligerent attitude towards South Korea and even Japan, it has managed to make enemies out of the whole world and suffer from sanctions too. North Korea is not like a large nation which primarily trades within its own borders, a USA or a Russia. In cases like that, generally everything necessary does exist within your own borders, from all types of skilled workers to all sorts of natural resources, so self-subsistence will only slightly raise prices due to domestic inefficiencies. In a small country, however, inevitably natural resources and necessary industries will exist outside your borders, and to forsake free trade is the same as forsaking those natural resources and industries altogether.

If your climate and soil isn't wet enough to support rice, or hot enough to raise oranges, you simply won't have rice or oranges on the menu. Only a few countries on Earth are large enough to have all sorts of climates that support all sorts of varied crops, from sugar to cotton to wheat to corn to potatoes to cows. If you don't trade with the outside world, you'll invariably be lacking in something people would generally consider a necessity: comfortable textiles for your clothing, a varied diet for dinner, oil to run your cars or coal to run your power plants. Life's little luxuries that make life enjoyable will also all vanish -- a morning cup of Java is pretty difficult if you don't trade with Java. Coffee, tea, wine, beer, rum, brandy, scotch, soda -- every single drink that makes or breaks the quality of your day relies on imported ingredients from a small corner of the world that has the appropriate climate and soil. You could say that the quality of what people have to drink every day is the largest factor in their total quality of life -- ranging from polluted worm-infested deadly water in Africa to the stupefying vodka of Russia to the refined Starbucks of Seattle, you can directly chart how well off people will be simply by what they're drinking. What do North Koreans drink? Without free trade to import their coffee beans, sugar, wine and tea leaves, what can they drink?

The desperation of North Korea to gain access to outside goods while still avoiding free trade leads to the same predictable answer that led to World War II. They must resort to military force to secure the goods they're unwilling to trade for freely. Thus we have North Korea threatening to sell nukes to terrorists, or to simply start a nuclear war themselves, unless we give in to their blackmail and hand over, for free, endless shipments of oil, rice, and whatever else they need. If North Korea were stronger, it would resort to the more classical system of Imperialism -- free trade is unnecessary in a big country with an internal free trade, so we just need to go out and conquer every climate zone, natural resource, and industry we need. Obviously either of these strategies, terrorist blackmailing or imperialism, is far more harmful to both parties than engaging in free trade between all parties concerned. The expense and suffering of war has only gone up since World War II, and by then the cost of imperialism had already become prohibitive, as discovered by both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. North Korea, meanwhile, is only receiving sporadic aid, far less than their genius IQ's could have achieved through peaceful trade and friendship with the outside world, and is inches away from being invaded and conquered by the entire rest of the world as one of the most persistent thorns in the side of world peace in history.

I don't want to pick on North Korea too much, though. They're just repeating mistakes made by millions of people all across the world. It's just that they're so obviously wrong and have made such an obvious mess out of their lives, that they're the easiest example to call upon. Going back to the idea that free trade only helps 'fat cats,' we must return to the benefits of free trade:

World peace, access to all goods no matter where they are produced on Earth, and all of them at the lowest price available. How exactly does this exclusively help fat cats? I don't think fat cats care that much whether goods are slightly cheaper or more expensive -- but for the poor, the price of basic commodities like oil, clothing, and food, matters a great deal. It determines whether they will have any money leftover for fun, or none, or even too little to buy what they need and whether they starve or freeze to death or not. World peace doesn't affect fat cats one way or the other, they'll always exempt themselves from the actual fighting -- but the poor will always be at the front lines, dying in the trenches -- so who's most benefited by world peace? Lastly, a rich person can just pay any tariff you put on a good, whether its strawberries or Ferraris, but limiting trade in foreign goods will completely wall off simple, what-should-be-cheap pleasures to the poor. For instance, in America, sugar is too expensive for poor people to regularly afford, which is why our soda is made out of domestic corn syrup. This is because we have barriers to free trade in sugar such that only the super rich can afford much of it. Everywhere else on Earth, even in the poorest corners of the world, people can afford to drink soda with real, pure sugar. Naturally, rich fat cats in America could also drink sugared soda, if they wanted, but they're too busy drinking some $1,000 a bottle wine to bother. The free trade barrier to sugar only hurts poor Americans who want sugared soda at a price they can afford. It only enriches a few fat cats who happen to be sugar farmers in America, who enjoy a monopoly on the good. Free trade is the ally of the poor and the enemy of fat cats, it's the exact opposite of what populists claim.

Protectionists are quick to marshal other arguments against free trade, and the devil is that some of them even make sense, which gives them a veneer of respectability. Free trade, for instance, might make people dangerously reliant on the good will of a hostile power. Carter experienced this during the Arab oil embargo that crippled America during the 70's. The answer to this isn't to cripple yourself ahead of time, so that no one else can, by never relying on trade with anyone -- in effect, imposing an eternal blockade on yourself at all times instead of just fearing an occasional blockade from outside. This is swallowing the spider to eat the fly. The answer is two-fold: We should pursue good relations with the outside world so that we don't have any hostile powers we need to trade with -- we should be friends with everyone. This was Washington's advice when he left the presidency -- don't seek entangling alliances that will make as many enemies as friends, but trade freely with everyone as a friend to all. The obvious implication is that we should stop favoring Israel at the expense of Palestine and the rest of the Arab world, and trade freely and evenly with everyone in the region as a disinterested neutral third party. Then the oil embargo under Carter never would have happened, nor would an oil embargo occur in the future, now would it?

The other side of the equation is that, after we've been as friendly as possible to everyone, there is still some belligerent force out there trying to deny us a necessary commodity, like oil or aluminum or rare-Earths, we must have a powerful enough military and a large enough strategic reserve in those resources to fuel said military, and our economy, until we win a war with said hostile boycotting force, and restore our trading rights with said hostile power. No one can afford to go without basic commodities that fuel our industry and support our quality of life. If we make this clear enough in our international diplomacy, and carry a big enough stick (if you're a large nation like the U.S, you can just fund an enormous military and dare anyone to offend you -- while as a small nation, you can join a larger league like NATO and get the same results), free trade will be secured at the point of a gun and therefore, we'll never actually be reliant on hostile powers for necessary goods. We'll be reliant on force of arms for necessary goods, and trade will just be part of the equation.

The threat of going to war is far better than actually having to go to war to secure necessary goods. Countries that seek self-sufficiency would have to permanently conquer and occupy any important natural resource on Earth. But this way, we can simply threaten to go to war if we can't trade for that resource, and everyone can live normally and peacefully with that threat keeping people honest looming overhead.

Another argument used by protectionists is that we'll lose jobs to foreign competition. This makes little sense unless they also oppose using machines in the workforce. After all, a lost job is a lost job, and machines are taking more jobs than free trade already. But supposing they have some convoluted explanation for why they're not opposed to machine labor but only foreign labor taking away jobs, the answer isn't to give makework jobs to unproductive workers that the rest of the country has to support through higher prices for all their consumer goods. The answer is to tax the rich and simply give welfare to the unemployed. You see how in one case, the entire country is made to bear the burden of protectionism, but in the other, only the fat cats bear the burden of free trade. Since, simultaneously, these fat cats benefit from free trade by A) having a lower cost of doing business, and thus higher profits and B) having more friendly trading partners who will allow more exports into their countries, they'll be more than happy to pay whatever extra taxes are necessary to cover our domestic job losses.

It's not even proven that free trade will be a net loser in jobs. Every time we buy something from abroad, we give them dollars. These dollars can only be exchanged, ultimately, for some good or service made in America, by Americans. So sooner or later the trade becomes mutual and employs someone over here in return. This is just mathematically necessary. The only time this formula wouldn't work is if people were selling us goods for free, in which case, the loss of jobs could easily be covered by welfare payments since we now are making 100% profits on every transaction. Trade imbalances can only be temporary, or, ultimately, they turn into direct giveaways. China has been giving America money for free by keeping its currency undervalued. This has made Americans better off and Chinese worse off, it's only incidentally increased employment in China and reduced employment in America. Overall, the benefit is tremendously in our favor.

Two more objections to free trade are humanitarianism and environmentalism. We wouldn't want to buy products rendered cheap by slave labor from abroad, or meat that was farmed in an extremely cruel manner or from an extremely rare or cute/intelligent species. We also don't want to jeopardize the future of a planet, or even of the region the product was made in, by unsustainable business practices. Lastly, we're against anything that would lead to overcrowding or overpopulation. Opposition to the import of guns, drugs, or other dangerous substances also fits in this category. All of these objections are legitimate and should be addressed. What is the point of restricting carbon dioxide emissions in one corner of the world if we're just going to trade with countries that emit correspondingly more elsewhere? We all share the same atmosphere and heat is known to conduct from one place to another. Sadly, we have more than enough free trade when it comes to these issues. Workers in China and elsewhere live in unacceptable conditions that we don't accept in our countries and shouldn't accept elsewhere, whether it makes a product cheaper or not. China's air quality is so bad it is causing massive health problems for, especially, their children, a price far too high for a modest reduction in prices. Free trade shouldn't make us conscienceless rapists and murderers who just operate through surrogates who do the crimes we've made lucrative out of sight. We don't need free trade in elephant ivory.

The final argument against free trade is opposition to immigration. In a world of perfect free trade, laborers must be allowed to go where they please and wages all across the world must become harmonized so that any service, anywhere on Earth will always cost the same. Libertarians yearn for this day, but protectionists don't. This is because there are negative externalities to mass immigration that libertarians don't take into account -- what are the voting habits, the crime habits, the cultural habits, the religious habits, the bathing habits, etc, of these immigrants? Do they speak our language? Do they fit in, or do they make trouble? Are they tax eaters or tax payers? Until all these questions are answered, it's extremely doubtful free trade is worth it.

The tangled skein that is the mixture of good and bad arguments for and against free trade must be carefully teased out and set aright. We need free but humanitarian, environmentally conscious fair trade, combined with welfare handouts to the unemployed, and extremely tight controls on immigration. This doesn't fit the model of any political party currently available. As a result, no matter who we back, we're dooming ourselves to one stupidity or another. But the status quo is still better than cutting off trade entirely. When trade ends, war begins, because when it comes to strangers, those are really the only two choices mankind has. With the advent of nuclear weapons, war is no longer an option. Thus, free trade, like it or not, is the only way mankind is going to survive.

Today we take for granted materials that we normally would never have seen -- pepper, sugar, cocoa, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, corn, tobacco, cotton, silk, gold, silver, platinum, a dozen other metals and most importantly, oil. World trade connected Europe to all the animals, crops, and metals of America, Australia, Africa and Asia. Ultimately, with the quick exhaustion of oil sources in places like Romania and Texas, world trade became necessary simply to fertilize our crops and power our cars. If you took a random peasant in the year 1 A.D. and another random peasant in the year 1700 A.D., it would be a tossup whose life was better. It was world trade that has completely changed this picture. Let's recall that the industrial revolution began as a result of world trade, it did not not cause it. Without world trade, England never would have had access to cotton in the first place. Without external markets, they never would have needed to make so much cotton that machines for its spinning and warping would have been invented. But with those two features in place -- the import of raw materials from foreign climates and soils, and the export of finished goods to foreign lands full of yearning customers, the industrial revolution was born.

Until steel and steam made world trade viable in anything but luxury goods, the world stayed poor. Afterwards, practically overnight, it became rich. Between 1880 and 1914, world trade volume tripled, while world GDP quadrupled. Specialization of labor allows people to learn just one industry and become very good at it -- textile factories for England, for instance, or shipbuilding in New York, or cotton farming in Virginia. If an entire country only makes one product, it will obviously make more than it needs, but it will make the best possible product, with the highest comparative advantage, given its climate, demographics, education and natural resources, at the cheapest possible price. These advantages can only be leveraged by trading the surplus of whatever you've specialized in to the outside world. Only by world trade can economies become more productive and efficient. Otherwise, everyone has to become a jack-of-all-trades, a veritable hunter-gatherer who has to make all his own tools, gather his own food and build his own house. It becomes unwieldy to the point of insupportability. This magical formula concerning the benefits of trade don't spontaneously end at a nation's border. These economic laws are a logical necessity that extend universally. If it's good for two, or five people to trade between each other, which is why we have assigned jobs and aren't just told to 'fend for yourself, make everything you consume yourself, good luck, you rugged individualist you,' why wouldn't it also be a good idea for 10 million, or 10 billion people to trade between each other? There's no rational answer.

Since 1900, we've only made a few additional refinements to our quality of life -- computers, the internet, air conditioning, world peace and effective health care. These are all quite nice, but they pale in significance to the advances in our past, which saw such things as refrigeration, steel, oil, steam power, light bulbs, cars, airplanes, trains, telegraphs, etc connecting the world and combining all the world's accumulated crops into one delicious diet. But world trade has given us an artistic revolution: anime and video games from Japan (Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, as well as most game-making software companies, all originate in Japan), which revolutionized the lifestyle of most every boy since the 1980's. First Perry opened them up for trade, and now they've opened us up to Street Fighter and Sailor Moon. Without the impetus of trade, we never would have come into contact with foreign cultures, and therefore we never would have gained their uniquely valuable creative thoughts about life, the universe, and everything. In some ways, trade is just the materialist handmaiden to a more important spiritual goal, a global village, vibrant in its diversity, exchanging progress wherever it's made, in a harmonious and joyful atmosphere of mutual respect and love. Sports festivals like the Olympics and the World Cup are also made available by these trade networks, which are the highlight of our winters and summers.

Plus, it's only a matter of time before something really important emerges from the Far East, like fusion power or genetic engineering. More scientific papers are being published in China than the USA, after all. When the time comes, we'll all be glad to have established free trade ahead of time, so that they don't keep the secret to their invention to themselves. Previously our science created the green revolution that stopped the famines in China and India. Next time it will be their science that will come to our rescue. It's inevitable, there will be too much profit in selling their new product to stop it from leaking out. That's the wonder of trade. It connects everyone, so that progress anywhere becomes progress everywhere. Isolationism, protectionism, self-sufficiency, just means doing without the majority of the world's progress, and letting all of it pass us by. We will become like the dwellers in the Amazonian rainforest, still naked, still chucking spears for a living, while everyone else zips by on their flying cars. Is this really a good idea?

One of the reasons why no third party has emerged in America for over a century is that people are too afraid of the immature beliefs of Greens, Nationalists, and libertarians. We are crippled by our stubborn adherence to dangerous, destructive beliefs that we couple with our good, beneficial beliefs. For instance, many people are in favor of cutting the military, but randomly, libertarians insist we must also legalize drugs and polygamy. Many people would like to see cleaner drinking water, but Greens also insist we firebomb all our coal plants and live in adobe homes without air conditioning or meat. Nationalists shoot themselves in the foot in the same way, by championing protectionism at a time when global, free trade has made us the richest, happiest, and most secure we've ever been. Other nonsense beliefs, like judging people by the color of their skin, are likewise non-starters. Which is such a shame, because only nationalists want to stop immigration, Islamization, family deterioration, and a host of other ills that no one else will talk about.

When will a great compromiser appear, someone not so shrill as Hitler or Ayn Rand or Paul Ehrlig, a champion of third party beliefs that won't offend the common sense or sensibilities of the general populace? Politics is the art of the possible. It's impossible for a third party to succeed when they cling to lunatic principles no one likes, even if they 'know' they're 'right.' Why not abandon all the unpopular planks and concentrate on the ones people actually agree with?

Free trade has been the dominant world ideology since 1950, and it's been working for us pretty well this entire time, with unprecedented world prosperity, so how bad can it be? Focus your energies elsewhere -- like the benefits of wind power or stable homes. Suddenly, more people might start to listen.

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