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May 21, 2007 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]


In September 2002, speaking about his national security strategy, President Bush articulated an extraordinary definition of freedom. Bush said, “The concept of ‘free trade’ arose as a moral principle even before it became a pillar of economics. If you can make something that others value, you should be able to sell it to them. If others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it. This is real freedom, the freedom for a person, or a nation, to make a living.”

If America has a brand, then this is it. Free trade is the current American ideology. Pulled apart it’s a mixture of ideas including deregulation, lower taxes, openness to foreign investments and privatization. Like the ideology it supersedes, anti- communism, free trade has become a muddled dogma used by the Bush administration to explain almost everything. Take for example Bush’s comments shortly after September 11 when he said, “The terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, and we will defeat them by expanding and encouraging world trade.” It’s hard to understand how the motives of those hijackers were to undermine an economic world view (Their motives were more political in nature). The symbolism however is important. Viewing an attack on America as a punch in the gut for free trade seems to reinforce the idea that at its core, America is “market fundamentalism”.

This ideology almost takes on messianic status if you consider its social claims. When Salient asked the US Deputy Ambassador to New Zealand, David Keegan to compare the ideologies of anti-communism and free trade he stated “If we reduce the barriers to trade and investment around the world what that does is give people in all sorts of different places an opportunity to do what they do best and sell it to people who benefit by having it.” Like a utopian mantra this sentiment recurs in the speeches of President Bush. But is it correct? How does free trade fare in the variety of countries practising it? As it turns out ideology and practice don’t measure up as well as they should. A good example of this is Argentina, which during the ’90s operated a privatized, deregulated, tax-reformed market.

In 2001 it ceased to be the poster child of neo-liberalism as it collapsed and suffered the worst economic crisis in its history. While you’d expect this to rattle some of its closest followers’ beliefs, it doesn’t. It’s almost as if free trade is secretly a religious movement in disguise. The religious analogy takes on further meaning if you consider the sincerity of market fundamentalist aims.

What is free depends on whether your are exporting (free) or importing (closed). When it suits US commercial interests, poor countries are prevented from providing their goods to the world market. In this context, the “moral principle” of free trade is more a form of conformity than liberation.

Looking at the countries that have escaped poverty since the 1950s it seems that the lofty ideals of free trade are exactly that — lofty. A variety of poor countries in East Asia (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) followed strongly interventionist policies and recovered.

Twenty years from the nuclear free policies of Labours fourth term the free trade ideal is at the helm of New Zealand’s dialogue with America. The benefits of a free trade deal would be undoubtedly good for New Zealand but that depends on what side of the tracks you are from. It’s not that markets can’t do great things; it’s just that they remain flawed, favouring those with existing money and ignoring basic humanistic concerns.

If New Zealand and America are to work closer in trade partnership it’s not a corporate led globalization that is in our shared interests. In the long term throwing bones to those we like and ignoring the billons of people on the poverty line will create a world where we all end up in some form of slavery whether moral or financial.


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