All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1986

Book Review: Free Trade: The Necessary Foundation for World Peace edited by Joan Kennedy Taylor

FEE, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY 10533 • 1986 • 144 pages, $5.95 paperback

When, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the classical liberals took up the cause of free trade against the ruling doctrines of mercantilism, protectionism, and colonialism they did so not only out of a high regard for freedom of commerce. They did so to promote peaceful relations between nations, as well. They believed that by confining the functions of government to the protection of life, liberty, and property, the tensions between nations would gradually disappear, and that free trade would usher in a new era of international harmony, free of the scourge of war.

Today we have the benefit of hindsight, and these liberals seem to have been right. The nineteenth century was the closest we have come to a century of free trade, and peace seemed to follow. The twentieth century, on the other hand, has witnessed the abandonment of laissez faire ideals and the growth of statism of all varieties. It is no accident that it has also been the bloodiest century in history. The movement from limited government to unlimited government, from free trade to economic nationalism, has produced a century of conflict and violence.

This volume collects fifteen short essays by thirteen authors, most culled from the pages of The Freeman over the past three decades, to put some meat on the bones of this argument. The authors of these essays will for the most part be familiar to The Freeman’s readers, because they have been frequent visitors here: Bettina Bien Greaves and Hans Sennholz, Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises, Frederic Bastiat and Frank Chodorov join with others in making out a complex case. They tell us convincingly that free trade not only brings prosperity, but may help peace along, as well.

Frank Chodorov reminds us that “the will to live is not merely a craving for existence; it is rather an urge to reach out in all directions for a fuller enjoyment of life, and it is by trade that this inner drive achieves some measure of fulfillment.” People fulfill their needs through production and exchange, and erase conflicts through cooperation, bargaining and voluntary trade. And this process does not stop at a nation’s borders. That is why Chodorov finds that “any interference with the marketplace, however done, is analogous to an act of war,” and why Mises reminds us that “economic nationalism is incompatible with durable peace.”

Unfortunately, in turning our backs to the ideal of limited government, and embracing forms of socialism and the welfare state, we have got more than we bargained for. Once an impartial arbiter of disputes, government has decided to help some citizens at the expense of others. It wants to “protect” some producers at the expense of consumers, by putting roadblocks in the way of free trade. When tariffs aren’t enough, as Bettina Bien Greaves points out, they stoop to other kinds of restrictions on trade: “quotas, embargoes, ‘Buy American’ acts, licensing requirements, quarantines, food and drug standards, antidumping laws,” and the like. All of these restrictions are meant to stop domestic consumers from voluntarily buying the products they desire from foreign producers.

A result is the rise of aggressive nationalism, which, as Mises argues, “is the necessary derivative of the eco nomic policies of intervention and national planning. While laissez faire eliminates the causes of international conflict, socialism and government interferences with business create conflicts for which no peaceful solution can be found.” (emphasis added)

This book is a call for us to step back from the brink of economic nationalism and trade wars to consider what we are doing. It is concerned simultaneously with principles and reality. And its authors focus clearly on some of the great issues of our time: world hunger, foreign aid, international investment, unemployment and international conflict are all seen through the eyes of principles that enable us to understand what is happening to our world. In doing that, it makes a bold case for the re-examination of the ideals we have so thoughtlessly abandoned: individual rights, private property, economic freedom, limited government and free trade. In the nineteenth century these ideals helped promote peace; in the twenty-first, perhaps they can do so again.