Contribution No.6 to the debate on FREE TRADE:
The "Free Trade" Question
In the Spring 2001 issue of "The Georgist Journal", No. 93, the editor, Lindy Davies, wrote this summary:
There has been lively debate in recent months about the georgist movement’s use of the term “free trade”. Is it a liability to our outreach and networking efforts? Does it mean what it used to mean? Is it a central tenet of the georgist philosophy, deserving equal billing with the collection of land rent for public revenue? This issue will be on the agenda of the business meeting of the International Union for Land Value Taxation and Free Trade at the conference in Edinburgh — and the call has gone out for preliminary discussion, to help focus the upcoming debate.
“We all need to be doing some serious thinking” writes Barbara Sobrielo, “about the words ‘free trade’”. Regrettably, this term has been hijacked — and it has become linked to merciless big business practices that penalise the poor. The days when it was a clarion call and conference halls were named for it, like the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, seem sadly to have gone. The logo for the International Union was FREE LAND — FREE TRADE — FREE MEN. What a banner to walk behind! But that was yesterday. We have to deal with the present.”
Many colleagues complain that the term “free trade” hampers our efforts to connect with other reformers who share our goals of economic justice and sustainable prosperity. Hanno Beck, for example, points out that to many people in today’s political climate, free trade means “allowing secretive supragovernmental groups to hand special privileges out to large corporations, to the detriment of democracy, to the detriment of economic efficiency, to the detriment of workplace safety, and to the detriment of the poor and middle classes.”
However, many georgists take umbrage at this characterization, saying that if this is indeed what people mean when they say “free trade” today, then they are mangling the term’s meaning. Critics of today’s “free trade agreements” such as NAFTA, GATT, and lesser agreements such as the “Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights” (TRIPS) complain bitterly about their erosion of people’s rights. Such “free trade” pacts actually limit consumers’ access to information about genetically modified foods, or products produced in inhuman or environmentally destructive ways. They seek to ban health, safety or environmental regulations as “nontariff barriers to trade”. It soon becomes clear that such interventions have very little to do with the unhindered voluntary exchange of goods that people have always called “free trade”.
In fact, as Fred Foldvary points out, such aspects of international “free trade” agreements are actually protectionist. When someone profits from selling a product made by sweatshop labor, or by the destruction of habitat, or containing untested, potentially harmful genetic manipulations, they are actually inflicting coercive harm on consumers and workers. The opportunity to coerce and harm others, without cost or penalty, is a privilege — and this privilege is being bestowed upon multinational corporations by today’s “free trade” agreements. George Orwell would get it: in 2001, “free trade” has actually become protectionism.
How should georgists respond to this conundrum? Should we expunge Protection or Free Trade from our curriculum? Should the International Union change its name? It seems clear that we ought not use a slogan that potential supporters find repulsive. And yet part of our task must be to deepen public understanding of the real nature of trade, to expose the lies that are being foisted on people and nations, in the name (also stolen) of “progress”. That is not an easy task, of course — for our access to media, our weight in today’s public dialogue, is practically nil — and it is precisely in order to gain that access, and broaden that influence, that our colleagues urge us to watch our language!
While the discussion has gone on, a dual strategy has emerged among georgist activists. Those on the cutting edge of coalition-building are crafting their message in terms that suit their purposes. Meanwhile, georgist educators continue to insist on the clarity and consistency that distinguishes our economic analysis. Many see a need to guard against any watering-down of the georgist message. Fred Harrison, for example, writes that “before I support the deletion of Free Trade from the IU title, I would campaign for the deletion of the words Land Value Taxation from its name. This is because a) we are not proposing a tax, and b) we are not proposing to impose a levy on land values — if this concept is taken to represent capitalised rents — because there would be no rental income left to capitalise, if we implemented the Georgist model. And if the IU is a Georgist organisation, it is not campaigning for anything less than the full rent as public revenue.”
But many warn that to insist, from the start, that everyone must use Our Definitions is to doom us to irrelevance. “There aren’t very many georgists in the first place,” Hanno Beck writes, “and if we say that “free trade” is good, we will connect with approximately no one and will continue to be ignored.... On the other hand, if we proclaim that we oppose corporate privilege and global monopoly (we don’t have to say we support or oppose free trade, just don’t use the term), we have spoken the truth and we will connect with more people... those opponents of global monopoly and corporate privilege who notice us will remember that we are among the “good guys.”
If so, then perhaps we can get some of them, eventually, to enroll in the HGI’s course in Applied Economics — which asserts both our ability and our responsibility to cut through the mass of doubletalk that engulfs today’s talk of international trade, wages, sustainability and development.
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