The late Milton Friedman wrote that there are “few measures that we could take would do more to promote the cause of freedom at home and abroad than complete free trade.” But with a pro-free trade measure at hand, some on the right are letting their objections for President Obama’s lawlessness on immigration and other issues to cloud their conviction in this core principle of conservative belief.
At issue is Trade Promotion Authority, which guarantees that international trade agreements struck by the president will receive an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate. The expedited process would extend from the last months of Obama’s second term into the next, hopefully Republican presidency. Since the GOP controls both chambers of Congress until Obama leaves office, putting trade agreements to a vote hardly seems like a serious danger, especially for some of the more outlandish “threats” that critics have raised. Would House Republicans – any House Republicans – vote to curtail the 2nd Amendment, for instance? The idea is, frankly, laughable. And yet this precise worry has been raised by Gun Owners of America (generally a terrific organization) as something Obama may try to sneak through once he has secured an up-or-down vote in Congress. Fears of a liberal dream agreement gliding through Congress while Republicans watch helplessly look even more outlandish when one considers the politics of the actual agreement at issue: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal that Obama is currently negotiating with Japan and other Asian countries. They say you can tell who a man is by his friends. For the TPP, it’s equally instructive to look at its enemies: an axis-of-liberalism of unions and environmentalists.
In Congress, arch-liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), backed by the nakedly partisan former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), have lit up Obama for backing the deal, occasionally descending into bitter recriminations. Given that unions have employed truly slash-and-burn tactics to stop the TPP, including warning a Democratic lawmaker they would drop $2 million in the next Democratic primary to take them out if they disobeyed liberal orthodoxy, it’s clear the TPP won’t be garnering a huge number of Democratic votes when it comes to the House floor. Given that reality, all of the leverage for agreeing to the ultimate deal lies with the Republicans. And if a President Rubio or Walker is negotiating deals in 2017, trade fast-track will help facilitate their deals.
It would also be more difficult to pass through Congress then with Democrats likely to be completely unified against it. Beyond fears about Obama, a more worrying trend in the rhetoric from some critics like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), generally speaking a conservative champion, is their criticism of trade deals in principle. Sessions has criticized previous free trade agreements, saying they have led to a trade imbalance. The Alabama Republican cites economist Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan administration official who has veered sharply left in recent decades, arguing that an increase in imported goods has led to job losses.
Here, Friedman is especially instructive. Rather than causing economic harm, the truth about imports is “very different,” he wrote in the late 1990s. “We cannot eat, wear, or enjoy the goods we send abroad. We eat bananas from Central America, wear Italian shoes, drive German automobiles, and enjoy programs we see on our Japanese TV sets. Our gain from foreign trade is what we import. Exports are the price we pay to get imports.” Every industry has what Friedman called a “cacophony of the ‘interested sophistry of merchants and manufacturers’ and their employees” working overtime to “protect” their narrow interests against trade deals that benefit vast millions of people, a little bit each.
As a conservative, I’m worried about representing the interest of the many – I know that each industry will ably represent itself. Conservatives looking at guaranteeing merely a vote on a trade agreement loathed by the left ought to consider their interests, too.