- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

One of the bedrock beliefs of modern American conservatism is that limited government at home and free trade abroad reinforce each other, and it's easy to see why. It does stand to reason that if government enables citizens largely to sink or swim on their own, that government is highly unlikely to restrict their ability to buy any good or service produced anywhere in the world at the lowest possible price.
It also seems logical that societies exposed to foreign competition will face great difficulties maintaining burdensome regulations on domestic businesses, or tying up much of the national wealth financing big welfare programs. New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman has even coined a catch phrase for open trade's presumed effect on domestic policies: the "golden straitjacket."
But life has a funny way of throwing curve balls, and modern American politics is demonstrating that for all their logic, conservatives may have it exactly wrong. Free trade looks like it's supercharging the growth of all the types of government activities that they hate.
The premier example involves Congress' efforts to link the fate of the fast-track trade negotiating authority bill to trade-adjustment assistance (TAA) programs. Since the 1960s, Washington has offered a hodgepodge of re-education and retraining packages for workers who lose their jobs to import competition or to factory relocations abroad.
Until this year, TAA wasn't terribly controversial. Everyone, including the Democrats and liberals that were keenest on them, knew that the retraining programs had long failed to help most displaced workers land jobs that were better or even comparable to those they lost. But the programs assuaged liberals' guilt over not resisting ill-conceived trade deals more effectively. And trade adjustment assistance didn't cost much, so their natural conservative foes never raised much fuss.
In 2001, however, the Democrats greatly upped the ante especially those Democrats who, during the Clinton years, favored the kinds of NAFTA-style free trade agreements that displaced so many workers to begin with. Suddenly, with a Republican in the White House (and with an economy no longer meriting the label "Goldilocks") they decided that trade adjustment assistance had to be more than a sop to globalization's victims.
Free-trade Democrats in the House nearly beat the fast-track bill last year by insisting that the administration agree to a trade-adjustment bill package first. This year, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle demanded, and got, an even higher price. Democrats extended TAA's coverage to so-called secondary workers, those whose job loss can be traced to trade-connected developments in related industries. They also won a big and unprecedented health insurance subsidy, and a pilot wage insurance program designed to compensate workers displaced by trade if their new jobs are lower-paid than their old. Despite resistance from the spending-phobic House Republican leaders who are pushing hardest for fast track, the final bill probably will contain many of these welfare provisions.
Republicans accused Daschle & Co. of blackmail, and of using the trade bill to push through Democratic big government pet projects that otherwise would languish in legislative purgatory. But the GOP itself was a prime mover behind another huge expansion of government with a big government angle the new farm bill.
Although its backers have not yet made the free-trade connection, it can't be mere coincidence that the bill steamed through the House and that President Bush promised to sign it just as the Senate trade debate heated up. After all, since 1990, U.S. agricultural imports have been rising nearly twice as fast as exports, and U.S. attempts to open foreign markets or to fend off dumped products repeatedly have been frustrated. In these circumstances, it's no surprise that the market-oriented "Freedom to Farm Act of 1996" quickly became known as the "Freedom to Fail" bill.
Globalization and NAFTA-style trade agreements aren't the only culprits here. Technological change obviously has roiled American labor markets. And deregulated financial markets at home and abroad have created powerful incentives for business to view workers as costs to be cut whenever possible, not as assets to be developed.
But who can doubt that the downward wage pressure exerted by breakneck globalization has greatly added to the uncertainties and anxieties of working Americans? Who can doubt that the loss of high-paid manufacturing jobs in particular has denied tens of millions of American families the ability to finance responsibly all kinds of everyday basics that were once within their grasp, from childcare to prescription drugs? And who can blame these families for looking to government to fill the gap?
Republicans and conservatives can blame moral and cultural decay all they want. But they'll continue to lose the big government battle as long as they ignore how their extremist free trade policies not just NAFTA-style agreements, but also the failure to fight foreign predatory trade practices and acquiescence in the WTO's assault on American sovereignty have been fueling this fire.
Americans have never flinched from self-reliance when real economic opportunities have been available. But they have understandably run to Uncle Sam when these opportunities have vanished or been denied. Conservatives have a choice. They can stay blindly loyal to their ideology, keep pushing breakneck globalization, and watch the welfare state balloon in response. Or they can learn that better regulation of foreign commerce (as the Constitution puts it) is the best guarantor of self-reliance and liberty at home.

Alan Tonelson, a columnist for the Tradealert.org Web site, is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation. His book on globalization, "The Race to the Bottom," will be issued in paperback this fall by Westview Press.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide