All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 2000

No Dog in that Fight

Pro-Free Trade and Anti-WTO Is the Position Most Consistent with Liberty

As satisfying as it was to see the World Trade Organization meeting reduced to dithering, no meticulous free trader could have taken sides in the confrontation last fall involving the WTO bureaucrats, the street mob, and the jackbooted Seattle police.

There were no “Free Traders Against the WTO” signs in sight. The free trade movement, such as it is, has missed the boat. The time to stake out a principled position was several years ago, when the WTO was first created. For most people now, pro-free trade and anti-WTO does not compute. Yet that is the position most consonant with liberty and property.

When the most prominent free traders endorsed creation of a bureaucracy that promised to support their abstract principles, they ignored lessons of political economy they routinely apply to most other areas of public policy. Public Choice teaches that bureaucrats face systemic incentives adverse to liberty. Applied to the case at hand, Public Choice would foresee that an international bureaucracy purportedly directed at diminishing government power over trade would sooner or later do the opposite. Too many free traders seem to believe that WTO bureaucrats and their political sponsors breathlessly await the next policy paper demonstrating that opening our market is good for us.

Predictably, the trade managers are concerned with things other than liberty and sound economics. The WTO is busy becoming the TWO—the Third Way Organization, an imperialistic National Labor Relations Board, Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency rolled into one. This, incidentally, is what most of the street mob wanted. (It is not what the people of the developing world want.)

Historically, the phrase free trade was not followed by the word but. That popular slogan—“I’m for free trade, but I’m for fair trade”—would have been doubletalk to Cobden, Bright, and Bastiat, who understood that government power denatures free trade, the concomitant of a foreign policy of nonintervention. Let’s hope that the American free-trade movement rediscovers its roots and resumes its quest for the unconditional elimination of all U.S. trade barriers.

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No news report about a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake in the United States is today complete unless it includes details of the response of the Federal Emergency Management Administration. It’s hard to believe that was not always so. Daniel Oliver reminds us that one of the great disasters in American history brought virtually no government response whatever.

When it comes to disasters nature seems particularly unkind to the poor nations of the world. As Barun Mitra shows, this is neither vendetta nor coincidence.

If supply and demand don’t converge as a result of every market participant’s having perfect knowledge, as textbook economics often holds, how does it happen? Israel Kirzner salvages the law of supply and demand in a distinctly Austrian manner.

In their never-ending effort to subordinate the individual to the state, Progressive intellectuals concoct caustic solutions designed to dissolve all notions of natural rights. James Bovard distills the latest sample and finds the usual snake oil.

Forget the rule of law. If special interests fear competition from Wal-Mart and other consumer blessings, there’s little to stop them from getting an edict from the legislature to thwart the new retailers. Timothy Sandefur describes the recent case in California.

Hidden in the controversy over foreign affairs—“isolationism” versus “internationalism”—is an important matter that few want to discuss: whether America is a republic or an empire. Joseph Stromberg notes that only a short while ago a group of prominent men and women saw the issue for what it really is.

If the Internet can be dangerous to children, what’s the best way to protect them? The reflexive answer is “the government.” Wrong, says Keith Wade.

Every time you turn around, the state controls another part of medical care. Few people see the danger. But Michael Hurd warns that Americans are making a pact with the devil.

To see that pact in action, one need only look to The Netherlands, where the government health system has the power of life and death. Melvyn Krauss’s family experience is illustrative.

Passengers’ frantic rush for overhead-bin space can make flying in a commercial airliner a nerve-wracking experience. It need not be. Edward Lopez applies the principles of markets to the handling of carry-on luggage.

When John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s private plane fell into the sea, nearly everyone wanted to know how it could have happened and what government could have done to prevent it. Eric Nolte devotes his experience as a pilot and flight instructor to bringing sense to the incident.

Here’s what has caught the fancy of our columnists: Donald Boudreaux laments the lack of historical perspective. Lawrence Reed celebrates the birthday of a culture-shaping consumer product. Doug Bandow implores, “Not another draft!” Dwight Lee says spreading the work is not the same as spreading the wealth. Mark Skousen discusses Nobel-prize winner Robert Mundell. Charles Baird sees hypocrisy in how unions are treated by the law. And Thomas DiLorenzo, reading in a prominent newspaper that hurricanes bring prosperity, protests, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Our reviewers deliver verdicts on books about feminism, the drug war, teachers judging teachers, American history, regulation, and the allure of bad news.

—Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.