Acton Commentary

The Moral Case for Free Trade


The economic case in favor of free trade is well known, but as America assesses its place in the world, it is time for us to consider the moral case as well.

It would be naïve to think that we will ever see totally free trade, any more than we will ever achieve moral perfection. The challenge is to keep working toward those goals and to create a better world through those efforts. And there is a strong link between our work on both fronts.

Beyond all the familiar lobbying and political infighting over the proposal to restore Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to the president of the United States, there is an overlay of moral issues that cannot be ignored. TPA, sometimes called "fast-track," would give the president the authority needed to negotiate international trade agreements effectively, with Congress required to reject or accept them promptly, without endless compromises and amendments to please different factions.

Every president from Gerald Ford through George H. W. Bush had TPA, which was granted to him by Congress. George W. Bush and his administration need it now. It is an important step in restoring America’s lost status as the global leader in supporting free trade. And that kind of leadership is a moral as well as economic and political responsibility.

For America, championing free trade in the world has the same moral imperative as our support for freedom and democracy. We have supported those values because we consider them morally just believe that they offer a better way of life for all the people of the world.

The unquestioned security and comfort of life in America make it difficult to remember that our lifestyle—as well as that of our industrialized trading partners—is worlds away from the lifestyle of most people on the planet. For the sake of perspective, consider that half the world’s population—about three billion people—has never even made a phone call.

Poverty, hunger and limited healthcare are common in too many parts of the world, even after a decade of overall growth in the global economy, encouraged, in part, by gradually liberalizing trade policies. Lifting trade barriers between rich and poor countries would generate the international trade that decreases human misery through economic growth in developing nations. Christianity and all the other religions of the world recognize a moral obligation by the fortunate few to help the less fortunate many.

Yet liberalized trade is not an act of charity nor a one-way funnel for economic benefits. The traditional protectionists who would have us believe that free trade is a form of welfare financed by the United States are conveniently ignoring the benefits it brings to the average family in this country. The protectionist arguments strain moral credibility when the beneficiaries of such protection turn out to be a handful of producers, as is often the case. They might well benefit by keeping out competitors from another country, but this is certainly not protection for hard-working American families who are forced to pay higher prices.

Trading with the rest of the world contributes to America’s greatness. It has encouraged our citizens to exercise God’s gift of creativity and to develop new products and services that succeed in the global market while improving the quality of life.

Certainly, given the uncertainty and fear in the international environment right now, we would do well to remember the link between world trade, world peace, and world prosperity. Our doubtlessly well-intentioned friends in the anti-globalization movement seem to have lost touch with that link. Countries that enjoy fair and relatively free trade relations seldom go to war with each other. So a moral position in favor of world peace is fortified by the practical support we give to free trade.

Giving the president the authority needed to negotiate international trade agreements is not a panacea for international relations or the global economy. It would, however, help America regain the moral high ground as the world’s leading advocate of free and fair trade.