Edwards on (Not So) Free Trade

A statement from John Edwards on a free trade agreement with South Korea:

Thousands of American autoworkers learned this week that they will lose their jobs because of ill-conceived and poorly enforced trade agreements - and what is the Bush Administration doing? It's working overtime to sign a trade agreement with a country that refuses to open its market to American cars.

Enough is enough. President Bush should shut down all trade negotiations with South Korea until they prove their willingness to open their market to American automobiles and other U.S. products and agree to trade fairly.

The huge loss of jobs announced this week by DaimlerChrysler should be a wake-up call for this president: one-sided trade agreements hurt working families.

Instead of stubbornly pursuing policies that put Americans out of work, the Administration should focus on making sure new agreements include real labor and environmental protections and should enforce our rights under existing trade agreements. And the Congress should make it clear to the President that it will override any agreement that does not protect American jobs and American interests."

First, an aside to the Senator. Sir, you're making it extremely difficult for me to convince libertarians that siding with Democrats isn't the worst thing in the world.

That said, Edwards does have a point here. Free trade is a good thing, so I'm all for removing barriers to cheap imports. Frankly, I like cheap consumer products. So a free trade agreement with South Korea sounds pretty nice. Except that what Bush is negotiating isn't exactly free trade. If the FTA with South Korea included getting rid of trade barriers on both sides, then that would be swell. To the extent that the United States agrees to terms that its trading partners refuse to accept, well, then what really is the benefit?

But just for the record, this line

And the Congress should make it clear to the President that it will override any agreement that does not protect American jobs and American interests.

is, well, sort of incoherent. Or if not incoherent, then at least a bit confused. Unless you propose a trade agreement that requires Kia to exactly mirror the employment and management practices of DiamlerChrysler, then pretty much any trade agreement is going to cost some American jobs. But, of course, that's not equivalent to American interests, unless one thinks that American interest means keeping all Americans employed at their current job.

There is, I think, a serious conflating of issues present in many critiques of free trade. Worries about the loss of American jobs are, at bottom, Kantian worries. The objection, I think, is something like

    1. Trade agreement A will cost person P his job.
    2. Politicians have a duty to protect the job of person P.
    3. Therefore politicians ought not support trade agreement A.

Cutting against that objection is a utilitarian argument that goes something like

    1. Trade agreement A will cost person P his job by transferring P's job to person Q.
    2. Person Q is, moreover, far poorer than person P and lives in a society which lacks the social safety net that P's society enjoys.
    3. By transferring P's job to Q, good G can be produced more cheaply, resulting in increased purchasing power for all persons.
    4. Therefore Americans in general (along with everyone else) will benefit from trade agreement A.

Now it's fair to reject the utilitarian argument for free trade in favor of the Kantian objection to trade. I don't, personally, but then I'm not big on Kantian sorts of objections to much of anything. Still, it's at least clear to me why a Kantian might object to a FTA. That said, it seems disingenuous (or confused) to, on the one hand, cite the Kantian objection (namely, that FTAs harm selected individuals) and then immediately appeal to the utilitarian consideration (specifically, the general American interest) as if that also supports your position. The fact is that that if you want to take the Kantian line seriously, it means taking Kantian morality seriously, and that means taking the attitude that consequences are less important than individual autonomy. And that means that a good Kantian doesn't get to appeal to things like "American interests."

Share this