Acton Commentary

Free Trade: Moral Questions and Partisan Politics


In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, trade policy has been one of the hottest issues. But the debate among Democratic candidates seems to revolve around who is more opposed to free trade. Voters should beware, however, that trade involves not just presidential politics but profound moral questions.

Among Democrats, the expansion of free trade is a perceived weak spot for President Bush. In the January 6 debate , Governor Howard Dean of Vermont acknowledged, “The front-runner in this campaign is George Bush.” Therefore, any possible point of contention with the current administration is being emphasized and magnified in an attempt to bring the fight to the Republicans.

The candidates made explicit claims of strength for their anti-Bush positions in their closing statements. For example, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut contended he can “defeat [Bush] where we know he’s weak, on his failed economic policies.” Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio claimed to be the first of the candidates to “promote withdrawal from NAFTA and the WTO.”

Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) has perhaps staked the greatest claim on the anti-trade position, campaigning against free trade since the beginning of his run for nomination. He stated, “I have an international minimum wage proposal that would get conditions for labor and environment up in other countries.” Gephardt has said repeatedly that he would seek to use the WTO to impose these standards , effectively engaging in a form of protectionism. Linking rigid and artificial wage standards to equal participation in the global marketplace puts developing nations at a distinct disadvantage. That’s simply economic injustice.

Despite Lieberman’s claims that his “manufacturing recovery plan rejects economic protectionism,” he shares Gephardt’s intention to co-opt the WTO to give the U.S. an advantage. Lieberman’s Web site states , “Joe Lieberman will incorporate worker rights and environmental protection in all trade agreements and direct the U.S. Trade Representative to pursue the creation of a working group on labor in the World Trade Organization.”

Gephardt has expanded the anti-free trade rhetoric in an attempt to separate himself from his rivals. According to Minnesota Public Radio , at a meeting with sugar beet farmers on Jan. 4, Gephardt “pledged to fight against the Central American Free Trade Agreement—CAFTA—and he's using the issue to distinguish himself from presumed frontrunner Howard Dean. He says Dean supports free trade agreements.”

Given the current climate of debate, Dean would probably take issue with that characterization. Dean’s Web site proclaims , “The Bush Administration’s trade policy is not working” and goes on to say that “We should be acting to protect jobs here at home and labor and environmental rights abroad.” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby noted recently that Dean is attempting to show that his “support of NAFTA had been grudging at best, and that robust free trade was a policy no mainstream Democrat could endorse.”

The Democratic candidates rightly read that President Bush has been strong on free trade policies. Despite blunders in a few industries, such as the failed steel tariff political gambit , Bush’s administration has done much for expanding free trade. Most recently, Bush signed the CAFTA agreement , which has sparked so much opposition by those, like Gephardt, in favor of farm subsidies, tariffs, and international trade restrictions.

As Gephardt and other Democrats attack free trade, they are perhaps unintentionally distancing themselves from basic principles of the Democratic Party: to care especially for the oppressed in society, to be a party of the people. As the party’s platform of 2000 states , “The test of open trade in the years ahead is whether it empowers the many and not just the few, whether its blessings are widely shared, whether it helps to lift the poor out of poverty; and whether it works for working people.”

Those concerned about responsibly and consciously fulfilling the biblical imperatives to love your neighbor and seek her good and especially to care for the poor, the victimized, and the oppressed can easily embrace this “test of open trade.” Viewed through the lens of faith, expanded trade can encompass both the well being of working-class Americans and the poor in developing countries.

Time and again, Gephardt’s brand of protectionism fails this test, having been shown to stifle prosperity rather than “lift the poor out of poverty.” This is attested to by the experience of those in developing countries. James Shikwati, director of the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN) in Kenya, writes , “To argue for aid to Africa and to oppose trade liberalization in both the wealthy and the poor nations is to argue for stagnation. People should argue for more open trade that will reduce conflicts in Africa and create wealth.”

Truly free trade is the best method of recognizing the dignity of human beings created as image-bearers of God and promoting sustainable prosperity worldwide. Attempts to isolate the U.S. through unfair trade restrictions undermine the interests of both those in developing nations and large sectors of American society.

Given the reflexive need among the Democratic candidates to distance themselves from any and every Bush policy, it seems unavoidable that the nominee will ardently oppose the expansion of free trade. This troubling development has made the issue of free trade partisan, a turn that could prove to be a decisive factor in the November election. In the process, the anti-trade bandwagon has also undermined the Democratic Party’s stated commitment to the poor.