What Is "Free Trade" Really About?

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Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


The post-1980 era of neo-liberal globalisation and “free(r) markets” has not been as beneficial to the developing world as the defenders of neo-liberalism suggest. In fact, these economies have done worse under neo-liberalism than they did under state-aided forms of development between 1950 and 1980. The only exceptions post-1980 have been those states which have rejected the dogmas of neo-liberalism and used the state to foster economic development rather than rely on “free trade.”

It would, of course, be churlish to note that this is a common feature of capitalist development. Industrialisation has always been associated with violations of the sacred laws of economics and freedom for workers. In fact, the central conceit of neo-liberalism is that it ignores the evidence of history but this is unsurprising, economics has a distinct bias against empirical evidence. This applies to the notion of free trade as well as industrialisation, both of which show the economists lack of concern with reality.

Most economists are firm supporters of free trade, arguing that it benefits all countries who apply it. The reason why was first explained by David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of the discipline. Using the example of England and Portugal and wine and cloth, he argued that international trade would benefit both countries even if one country (Portugal) produced both goods more cheaply than the other because it was relative costs which counted. This theory, called comparative advantage, meant that it would be mutually beneficial for both countries to specialise in the goods they had a relative advantage in and trade. So while it is cheaper to produce cloth in Portugal than England, it is cheaper still for Portugal to produce excess wine, and trade that for English cloth. Conversely, England benefits from this trade because its cost for producing cloth has not changed but it can now get wine at closer to the cost of cloth. By each country specialising in producing one good, the sum total of goods internationally increases and, consequently, everyone is better off when these goods are traded. [The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, pp. 81–3]

This argument is still considered as the bed-rock of the economics of international trade and is used to refute arguments in favour of policies like protectionism. Strangely, though, economists have rarely compared the outcome of these policies. Perhaps because as Chomsky notes, “if you want to know how well those theorems actually work, just compare Portugal and England after a hundred years of development.” [Understanding Power, p. 254] One economist who did was the German Friedrich List who, in 1837, urged people “to turn his attention to Portugal and to England and to compare the economies of these two countries. I am sure that he can have no doubts as to which country is prosperous and which has lost its economic independence, is dead from an intellectual, commercial and industrial point of view, and is decadent, poverty stricken and weak.” [The Natural System of Political Economy, pp. 169–70] Unsurprisingly, List used this example to bolster his case for protectionism. Little has changed. Allan Engler notes that “[a]fter nearly 200 years, comparative advantage had given Portugal no noticeable advantage.” While the UK became the leading industrial power, Portugal remained a poor agricultural economy: “Britain’s manufacturing industries were the most efficient in the world, Portugal had little choice but to be an exporter of agricultural products and raw materials.” In 1988, Portugal’s per capita GDP was less than one third that of the UK. When “Purchasing power parity” is factored in, Portugal’s per capita GDP was barely more than half of the UK. [Apostles of Greed, p. 132]

Nor should we forget that free trade takes the economic agent as the country. Unlike an individual, a nation is divided by classes and marked by inequalities of wealth, power and influence. Thus while free trade may increase the sum-total of wealth in a specific country, it does not guarantee that its benefits or losses will be distributed equally between social classes, never mind individuals. Thus capitalists may favour free trade at specific times because it weakens the bargaining power of labour, so allowing them to reap more income at the workers’ expense (as producers and consumers). Taking the example of the so-called “free trade” agreements of the 1990s, there was no reason to believe that benefits of such trade may accrue to all within a given state nor that the costs will be afflicted on all classes. Subsequent developments confirmed such a perspective, with the working class suffering the costs of corporate-led “globalisation” while the ruling class gained the benefits. Not that such developments bothered most economists too much, of course. Equally, while the total amount of goods may be increased by countries pursuing their comparative advantage it does not automatically follow that trade between them will distribute the benefits equally either between the countries or within them. As with exchange between classes, trade between countries is subject to economic power and so free trade can easily lead to the enrichment of one at the expense of the other. This means that the economically powerful will tend to support free trade as they will reap more from it.

Therefore the argument for free trade cannot be abstracted from its impact or the interests it serves, as Joan Robinson pointed out:

“When Ricardo set out the case against protection he was supporting British economic interests. Free trade ruined Portuguese industry. Free trade for others is in the interests of the strongest competitor in world markets, and a sufficiently strong competitor has no need for protection at home. Free trade doctrine, in practice, is a more subtle form of Mercantilism. When Britain was the workshop of the world, universal free trade suited her interests. When (with the aid of protection) rival industries developed in Germany and the United States, she was still able to preserve free trade for her own exports in the Empire.” [Collected Economic Papers, vol. 5, p. 28]

This echoes the analysis of List who that the British advocacy of free trade was primarily political in nature and not to mention hypocritical. Its political aim was to destroy potential competitors by flooding their markets with goods, so ruining their industrial base and making them exporters of raw materials for British industry rather than producers of finished goods. He argued that a “study of the true consequences” of free trade “provide the key to England’s commercial policy from that day to this. The English have always been cosmopolitans and philanthropists in theory but always monopolists in practice.” [Op. Cit., p. 167] Moreover, such a position was hypocritical because Britain industrialised by means of state intervention and now sought to deny that option to other nations.

List advocated that the state should protect infant industries until such time as they could survive international competition. Once industrialised, the state could then withdraw. He did not deny that free trade may benefit agricultural exporters, but only at the expense of industrial development and spill-over benefits it generates for the economy as a whole. In other words, free trade harmed the less-developed nation in terms of its economic prosperity and independence in the long run. Protectionism allowed the development of local industrial capitalism while free trade bolstered the fortunes of foreign capitalist nations (a Hobson’s choice, really, from an anarchist perspective). This was the situation with British capitalism, as “Britain had very high tariffs on manufacturing products as late as the 1820s, some two generations after the start of its Industrial Revolution ... Measures other than tariff protection were also deployed” (such as banning imports from competitors). [Chang, Op. Cit., p. 22] Needless to say, trade unions were illegal during this period of industrialisation and troops were regularly deployed to crush strikes, riots and rebellions. Economist Thomas Balogh confirms this analysis:

“The fact is that Britain’s economic growth forged ahead of its European competitors while it was exploiting an effective monopoly of the steam engine, from 1780 to 1840. Through most of that period the nation had a high and complicated tariff ..., massive public investment and spending ... and an extensive public welfare system with wage supplements and welfare allowances indexed to basic costs of living ...

“There followed a long period, from about 1840 to 1931, when Britain did indeed have the freest trade and relatively speaking the cheapest government and (until 1914) the smallest public sector among the industrially developing nations, Yet, for competitiveness, that century saw the relative decline of the country. Numerous competing countries, led by the US and Germany, emerged and overtook and passed Britain in output and income per head. Every one of them had protective tariffs, and a bigger (relative) public sector than the British.” [Op. Cit., p. 180]

Significantly, and highly embarrassingly for neo-classical economists, the one nation which embraced free trade ideology most, namely the UK in the latter half of the 19th century, suffered economic decline in comparison to its competitors who embraced protectionist and other statist economic policies. It would be churlish to note that this is the exact opposite of what the theory predicts.

In historical terms, List has been proven correct numerous times. If the arguments for free trade were correct, then the United States and Germany (plus Japan, South Korea, etc., more recently), would be economic backwaters while Portugal would have flourished. The opposite happened. By the 1900s, Britain was overtaken economically by America and Germany, both of whom industrialised by means of protectionism and other forms of state intervention. As such, we should not forget that Adam Smith confidently predicted that protectionism in America would “would retard instead of accelerating the further increase in the value of their annual progress, and would obstruct instead of promoting the progress of their country towards real wealth and greatness.” He considered it best that capital be “employed in agriculture” rather than manufacturing. [The Wealth of Nations, p. 328 and p. 327]). The historical record hardly supports Smith’s predictions as “throughout the nineteenth century and up to the 1920s, the USA was the fastest growing economy in the world, despite being the most protectionist during almost all of this period ... Most interestingly, the two best 20-year GDP per capita growth performances during the 1830–1910 period were 1870–1890 (2.1 per cent) and 1890–1910 (two per cent) — both period of particularly high protectionism. It is hard to believe that this association between the degree of protectionism and overall growth is purely coincidental.” [Op. Cit., p. 30]

As with the UK, America “remained the most ardent practitioner of infant industry protection until the First World War, and even until the Second.” Like UK, the state played its role in repressing labour, for while unions were usually not technically illegal, they were subject to anti-trust laws (at state and then federal level) as well as force during strikes from troops and private police forces. It was “only after the Second World War that the USA — with its industrial supremacy unchallenged — finally liberalised it trade and started championing the cause of free trade.” [Chang, Op. Cit., p. 28 and p. 29] Unsurprisingly, faced with growing international competition it practised protectionism and state aid while keeping the rhetoric of free trade to ensure that any potential competitor has its industries ruined by being forced to follow policies the US never applied in the same situation. Chomsky summarises:

“So take a look at one of the things you don’t say if you’re an economist within one of the ideological institutions, although surely every economist has to know it. Take the fact that there is not a single case on record in history of any country that has developed successfully through adherence to ‘free market’ principles: none.” [Op. Cit., p. 255]

Not that this has disabused most economists from repeating Ricardo’s theory as if it told the full story of international trade or has been empirically verified. As Chang puts it, his approach of studying the actual history of specific countries and generalising conclusions “is concrete and inductive” and “contrasts strongly with the currently dominant Neoclassical approach based on abstract and deductive methods.” This has meant that “contemporary discussion on economic development policy-making has been peculiarly ahistoric.” [Op. Cit., p. 6] This is unsurprising, as there is a distinct tendency within mainstream economics not to check to see if whether the theory conforms to reality. It is as if we know that capitalist economics is true, so why bother to consider the evidence. So no matter how implausible a given theory is, capitalist economics simply asks us to take them on trust. Perhaps this is because they are nothing more than logical deductions from various assumptions and comparing them to reality would expose not only the bankruptcy of the theory but also the bogus claims that economics relates to reality or is a science?

That these theories survive at all is due to their utility to vested interests and, of course, their slightly complicated logical beauty. It should be noted, in passing, that the free trade argument is based on reducing international competition. It recommends that different countries specialise in different industries. That this would make sense for, say, a country with industry (marked by increasing returns to scale and significant spill-over effects into other areas of the economy) rather than one based on agriculture (marked by decreasing returns to scale) goes without saying. That the policy would turn the world into a provider of raw materials and markets rather than a source of competitors for the most advanced nation is just one of these co-incidences capitalist economics suffers from.

As such, it is not a coincidence that both the classic “free trade” and current neo-liberal position does allow a nation to secure its dominance in the market by forcing the ruling elites in other nations to subscribe to rules which hinder their freedom to develop in their own way. The rise of neo-liberalism can be viewed as the latest in a long series of imperialist agendas designed to secure benefits of trade to the West as well as reducing the number of rivals on the international market. As Chang notes, Britain’s move to free trade after 1846 “was based on its then unchallenged economic superiority and was intricately linked with its imperial policy.” The stated aim was to halt the move to industrialisation in Europe by promoting agricultural markets. Outside of the West, “most of the rest of the world was forced to practice free trade through colonialism and ... unequal treaties.” These days, this policy is implemented via international organisations which impose Western-dominated rules. As Chang notes, the “developed countries did not get where they are now through policies and the institutions that they recommend to developing countries today. Most of them actively used ‘bad’ trade and industrial policies ... practices that these days are frowned upon, if not actively banned, by the WTO.” [Op. Cit., p. 16, p. 23, p. 16 and p. 2]

In other words, the developed countries are making it difficult for the developing countries to use policies and institutions which they themselves so successfully used previously. This, as with the “free trade” arguments of the 19th century, is simply a means of controlling economic development in other countries to reduce the number of potential competitors and to secure markets in other countries. In addition, we must also stress that the threat of capital flight within western countries also raises competitive pressures for labour and so has the added benefit of helping tame rebellious workers in the imperialist nations themselves. These factors help explain the continued support for free trade theory in economic circles in spite of the lack of empirical evidence in its favour. But then again, given that most economists cannot understand how one class exploits another by means of exchange within a national market due to its economic power, it would be surprising if they could see it within international markets.

To generalise, it appears that under capitalism there are two main options for a country. Either it submits itself to the dictates of global finance, embracing neo-liberal reforms and seeing its growth fall and inequality rise or (like every other successful industrialiser) it violates the eternal laws of economics by using the state to protect and govern its home market and see growth rise along with inequality. As Chang notes, looking at the historical record a “consistent pattern emerges, in which all the catching-up economies use activist industrial, trade and technology (ITT) policies ... to promote economic development.” He stresses “it was the UK and the USA, the supposed homes of free trade policy, which used tariff protection most aggressively.” The former “implemented the kinds of ITT policies that became famous for their use in ... Japan, Korea and Taiwan.” [Op. Cit., pp. 125–6, p. 59 and pp. 60–1] In addition, another aspect of this process involves repressing the working class so that we pay the costs for industrialising. Unions were illegal when Britain used its ITT policies while the “labour market in Taiwan and Korea, for example, has been about as close to a free market as it is possible to get, due in part to government repression of unions.” [“What can Economics Learn from East Asian Success?”,Op. Cit., p. 70] Given that unions are anathema to neo-classical and Austrian economics, it is understandable why their repression should be considered relatively unproblematic (in fact, according to economic ideology repressing unions can be considered to be in the interests of the working class as, it is claimed, unions harm non-unionised workers — who knew that bosses and their states were such philanthropists?).

Neither option has much to recommend it from an anarchist perspective. As such, our stating of facts associated with the history of “actually existing” capitalism should not be construed to imply that anarchists support state-run development. Far from it. We are simply noting that the conclusion of history seems to be that countries industrialise and grow faster when the state governs the market in significant ways while, at the same time, repressing the labour movement. This process of state intervention is part and parcel of capitalism and has always been a feature of its rise in the first place (to use Marx’s expression, a process of “primitive accumulation” has always been required to create capitalism). This does not mean, just to state the obvious, that anarchists support protectionism against “free trade.” In a class system, the former will tend to benefit local capitalists while the latter will benefit foreign ones. Then there is the social context. In a predominantly rural economy, protectionism is a key way to create capitalism. For example, this was the case in 19th century America and it should be noted that the Southern slave states were opposed to protectionism, as where the individualist anarchists. In other words, protectionism was a capitalist measure which pre-capitalists and anti-capitalists opposed as against their interests. Conversely, in a developed capitalist economy “free trade” (usually very selectively applied) can be a useful way to undermine workers wages and working conditions as well as foreign capitalist competitors (it may also change agriculture itself in developing countries, displacing small peasant farmers from the land and promoting capitalist agriculture, i.e. one based on large estates and wage labour).

For the anarchist, while it is true that in the long run option two does raise the standard of living faster than option one, it should always be remembered that we are talking about a class system and so the costs and benefits will be determined by those in power, not the general population. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that people in developing countries actually want a Western lifestyle (although the elites who run those countries certainly do, as can be seen from the policies they are imposing). As Bookchin once noted, “[a]s Westerners, ‘we’ tend to assume out of hand that ‘they’ want or need the same kind of technologies and commodities that capitalism produced in America and Europe ... With the removal of imperialism’s mailed fist, a new perspective could open for the Third World.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 156–7]

Suffice to say, there are other means to achieve development (assuming that is desired) based on working class control of industry. Given this, the only genuine solution for developing countries would be to get rid of their class systems and create a society where working people take control of their own fates, i.e. anarchism. Hence we find Proudhon, for example, stating he “oppose[d] the free traders because they favour interest, while they demand the abolition of tariffs.”  He advocated the opposite, supporting free trade “as a consequence of the abolition of interest” (i.e. capitalism). Thus the issue of free trade cannot be separated from the kind of society practising it nor from the creation of a free society. Abolishing capitalism in one country, he argued, would lead to other nations reforming themselves, which would “emancipate their lower classes; in a word, to bring about revolution. Free trade would then become equal exchange.”  [The General Idea of the Revolution, pp. 235–8] Unless that happens, then no matter whether protectionism or free trade is applied, working class people will suffer its costs and will have to fight for any benefits it may bring.



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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