- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Who is isolationist now? During the presidential campaign, George Bush indicated he didn't want to engage in "nation-building," as President Clinton had. For that, he was tagged an isolationist. But now, following the Sept. 11 attacks, the president has all but conceded some nation-building may be necessary, at least in Afghanistan. (Sticklers will say that describing Afghanistan as a "nation" is a stretch.)
But it's fair to say that Sept.11 has made us all internationalists, right? Wrong. Congress is crawling with isolationists. They are the people who oppose free trade. They are protectionists, and protectionism is simply economic isolationism.
Congress is currently considering the Bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority Act, which would give President Bush what used to be called fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements. Trade promotion authority is simply an agreement by Congress that it will vote on trade agreements negotiated by the president as a package, and not try to rewrite the agreements when they are brought to Congress for approval. Without that special authority, it is substantially more difficult for the executive branch to negotiate trade deals with foreign countries.
But there are many in Congress who oppose giving the president trade promotion authority. Among them is House Democratic leader Rep. Richard Gephardt, who apparently thinks protectionism is his fast track to the White House in 2004. Environmentalists and labor tend to oppose free trade, and Mr. Gephardt must think there are enough of them to provide him the margin of victory.
The benefits of free trade to the American people are simply indisputable. From individual consumers families wanting to buy inexpensive clothing for their children to corporate consumers behemoth producers wanting to buy low-cost imports in order to keep down their manufacturing costs, and therefore the prices they charge their customers all Americans benefit from free trade. This is one of the economic truths literate man has known, not just for years, but for centuries.
Mr. Gephardt has chosen to ally himself with two special-interest segments of the American people. One group is the environmentalists, who distrust technology and society, and who may be content to live in the woods and dine on roots and shoots or at least have you live in the woods. The other group is the labor unions. But even union members and their wives and children, and fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters and grandparents, and uncles and aunts buy things, and want them to cost as little as possible. And as almost everyone who can read knows, trade makes economies dynamic and dynamic economies constantly produce new jobs, which union members with children should favor.
Mr. Gephardt is no friend of consumers, or workers, or of producers either, whether they are producers who want to buy goods from foreigners or sell goods to them. After all, as producers and other free traders know, 96 percent of the world's consumers live outside the United States. Does Mr. Gephardt know that?
With the increased security measures necessitated by the Sept. 11 attacks, consumers are likely to have to pay more for goods and services. Free trade can help alleviate this new burden.
But in addition to producing jobs for workers and lowering prices for consumers, there is another, non-utilitarian reason to favor free trade. And that is simply this: People ought to be free to buy from and sell to whoever they want. In the land of the free, people should be … free.
Government politicians should promote free trade, not stand in its way. At a time when it is perfectly apparent to almost everyone that the United States must not only be more involved in the world, but more involved in a leadership role, Mr. Gephardt's isolationism makes him a curious choice to hold a leadership position in the halls of government.
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I think all the world would gain by setting commerce at perfect liberty." That is as true today as it was then. But Mr. Gephardt doesn't agree. So who is the isolationist now?

Daniel Oliver is special counsel at Consumer Alert and a former chairman (1986-89) of the Federal Trade Commission.

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