There is much ado about the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) agreement here in Canada, especially considering an election is happening next week. I have seen a lot of criticism of the agreement but because we don't have full information about it yet the argument is very much based on guesswork. Certainly some things that have been bandied about in the TPP are worrisome, like the IP rights of pharmaceutical companies to block generic versions of their drugs for extended periods.
I want to be clear here though - I am not talking today about the specific parts of the TPP, because to the best of my knowledge we don't *have* those specifics nailed down. We have leaks of draft documents, yes, but everything is subject to change. What I am talking about today is the general attitude towards free trade I see out there in the world. As an example, Ziggyny linked me a educational comic strip designed to talk about the problems with the TPP here.
The thing about the strip is it makes a big deal about free trade agreements being bad because jobs get shipped out of the US to other countries, China in particular. This is a common refrain from all parts of the political spectrum - nobody, liberal or conservative, can stand up and say "I am really glad those factory jobs are in China now instead of the west!" It is framed as evil companies vs. good people, and usually the *other* politician is to blame for such atrocities.
The problem I have with all that is that it is based on nationalism, which isn't something I can get behind. Chinese people want jobs too and they need them more than we do here in the west. So from a humanitarian standpoint I can't get behind all the moral outrage over having factories in China. The thing is, free trade is good for both sides. (That doesn't mean every free trade agreement is a good one, obviously, just that the concept of trade with less barriers and tariffs benefits everyone in general.) Sure, free trade benefits China more than the west because it opens up the enormously profitable markets over here to their products, but reducing tariffs and barriers the other way also helps us!
The equation looks like this: We open the borders, and people in rich country A get 1 dollar more, but people in poor country B get five dollars. People in country A cry about the money lost, as though they could take that five dollars for themselves if they just prevented trade enough. It doesn't work that way! Look at history - countries that specialized in trade and made sure they made it easy for goods to move became wealthy, and so did their trading partners. We literally produce value from nowhere when we make it easier to trade because everyone can be more efficient. China has been producing goods for the west for a long time now, and their standard of living is rocketing upwards... and ours is going up too, though obviously not at the same rate because we started higher. Making trade more free helps everyone, but the lion's share of that help goes to the people who need it the most and are the poorest. How can that be a bad thing?
These arguments have much in common with the arguments about immigration. Yes, immigrants come to western nations and take jobs there. But then they buy things, from other westerners, and in the end everyone benefits because those immigrants create jobs when they buy things. The immigrants benefit the most, for sure, just as developing nations benefit the most from trade with rich nations, but when trade is more free everyone gets a piece of the pie.
None of this should be taken to mean that all things western companies do in developing nations are good. There are human rights abuses, terrible working conditions, and safety problems. As consumers in the west we can and should take companies to task who don't treat workers in other nations well. We can't and shouldn't try to control their salaries but we damn well should try to make sure that they are safe and not worked to death and it should go without saying that child labour falls under those goals.
We can and should try to lower or eliminate subsidies for specific industries, but of course we have to insist that our trading partners do the same. Allowing goods to flow freely and allowing investment in developing nations to proceed (with appropriate concessions to safety, again) is a great way to make everyone wealthier, and particularly to do so for those who have the least right now.
Maybe the TPP will do that, maybe it won't. I am pretty confident that some of its provisions will be corporate written monstrosities that we don't want, and that some of its provisions will lower barriers to trade both ways and benefit everyone in the process. So if you have a particular gripe with the TPP I am happy to hear it, and I will likely agree with you, but please let us stop with the assumption that everyone will be better off with protectionist, economic isolationist policies that keep everyone down.
Free trade is a good thing in principle. We shouldn't fear free trade, we should fear the crap that might get tacked on to the free trade in a big, messy, inevitably corrupt agreement like this.