Why America’s Right Must Reject Global Free Trade

Mocking left-wing cognitive dissonance is a favorite and lucrative pastime for many on America’s Right. It’s easy to do and the base loves it. The Left preaches against the evils of anthropogenic climate change, for example, but does so only from the comforts of private jets and exotic destinations. Outrageous, yet amusing. But unfortunately, the Right’s ironic sense of humor has not entirely inoculated us against our own forms of cognitive dissonance.

Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to the debate over globalization.

On the one hand, most conservatives firmly oppose political globalization—supranational organizations like the United Nations or the European Union. They see them as wastes of money, and threats to national sovereignty. Yet on the other, the Republican Party has relentlessly pushed for economic globalization—convoluted free trade deals and so-called open markets—since the Nixon Administration.

This is the height of cognitive dissonance: economic and political globalization are but two sides of the same coin—both lead us ever-onward into the hands of would-be global tyrants.

Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
Conservatives love Lord Acton’s famous but often misquoted observation: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For this reason, conservatives are generally skeptical of entities governed by faceless elites with shadowy pasts, by people who are not accountable to voters. Organizations like the U.N. or the EU necessarily concentrate power in the hands of a few and are, predictably, rife with corruption.

A good example is the EU’s authoritarian management of the European debt crisis. Recall how the EU appointed a special council, the Troika, to control Greece’s spending and reduce their debt. Of course, controlling Greece’s finances meant controlling Greece itself, and the nation was essentially occupied by EU bureaucrats who overturned elections, stripped Greece of its sovereignty, and egregiously violated the Greek population’s property rights in order to prop up the country’s insolvent financial institutions.

Nigel Farage, then a member of the European Parliament, compared the EU to the USSR in its Byzantine machinations and authoritarian predilections:

the European project . . . was about taking away democracy from nation states, and handing that power to largely unaccountable people . . . This European Union is the new Communism. It is power without limits. It is creating a tide of human misery, and the sooner it is swept away, the better. 

Most conservatives agree with Farage: the European Union concentrates political power in the hands of faceless men and women without names. The same is true of all other global organizations. Although they wield enormous power, few Americans can name the head of the United Nations, and fewer still the head of the World Bank. This disconnect between the rulers and the ruled is antithetical to the freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and to the democratic principle itself.

Even so, the same people who oppose political globalization for the above reasons often support economic globalization—which causes the same problems and has the same result.

A good example of this kind of cognitive dissonance on the Right is embodied by the popular conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. He argues vociferously against global political entities, calling the U.N. a “deep, virulent evil“; yet he writes glowingly about the European common market, and trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

My question for Shapiro and so many others like him: Who negotiated NAFTA? How about the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS)? Or TPP?

He does not know. Neither do you. No one knows.

These “free trade agreements” are so insurmountably long and immeasurably complex that no elected representative (or ordinary citizen) ever read them. Neither would they be likely to understand them if they tried. Feel free to browse the text of NAFTA and you will see my point. In the end, these deals are negotiated by bureaucrats behind closed doors, written by third-party lawyers—politicians simply rubber-stamp them. Who influences the bureaucrats? Who pressures the politicians? The true power rests with the faceless men who represent neither you nor I.

Such absolute and anonymous power is corrosive: consider how recent documents from Wikileaks reveal the multitude of hidden goodies and kickbacks written into the impending Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). If ratified, TiSA would be the most important piece of legislation since the Affordable Care Act, and yet it might as well be invisible. It is nowhere in the public imagination.

The bottom line: multilateral trade agreements concentrate enormous economic power in the hands of an unaccountable few, and the system is rife with abuse. If you oppose the United Nations on these grounds, you logically oppose NAFTA too. But as always, logic has to be exercised.

Killing Westphalia, Or How Globalism Usurps Sovereignty
Aside from King John’s Magna Carta and Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, the Treaty of Westphalia (signed 1648) is perhaps the most important legal document in Western history.

This is not because it ended the gruesome wars of religion, laying the political foundations for the age of Enlightenment, but rather because it redefined the notion of national sovereignty and created the modern nation-state. The treaty affirmed, for perhaps the first time since the fall of Rome, that a nation has supreme authority within its own borders—to the exclusion of supranational organizations like the Catholic Church or the Holy Roman Empire. This specific (and new) notion of sovereignty has been the modus operandi for political thinkers ever since.

This type of sovereignty is what conservatives seek to protect from international organizations like the U.N. or the EU—the stronger they grow, the weaker each nation is. This is obvious: for a supranational entity to work, each member state must surrender specified powers to said entity—it loses a piece of its sovereignty. Sometimes losing a bit of sovereignty is a fair trade. For example, most nations agree to respect each other’s territorial integrity or face international discipline, in exchange they receive the same guarantee.

But when too much trust is placed in these supranational organizations, we expose ourselves to real dangers. How long until the EU commands the independent military it craves? How long until the U.N. is able to enforce its particular brand of Human Rights on its members? Americans are right to guard jealously their nation’s sovereignty and cling to every root and branch to avoid ceding all sovereignty worth having to a claque of international elites with no concern or feeling for the particular interests of their citizens.

And yet, American conservatives are often the first to advocate more economic globalization—which undermines national sovereignty in precisely the same way. In fact, it is even more pernicious than the political variety, because trade deals have built-in sanctions for noncompliance.

For example: Nigel Farage claims some 75 percent of Great Britain’s laws and regulations are either imported from the EU, or must conform to standardized EU codes; while according to Hansard evidence submitted to parliament by Boris Johnson the number is 60 percent. Either way, the majority of Great Britain’s laws are not actually British, they are European. Furthermore, they were crafted by unaccountable commissioners no one has ever heard of—the faceless men.

Most importantly: these laws were all adopted in the name of economic efficiency; what began as the European Coal and Steel Community has evolved into a sprawling system with a single currency, open borders, and open markets—Hillary Clinton’s dream. In surrendering power to the EU to facilitate more trade and closer economic ties, the European nations have been completely emasculated, reduced to mere vassal states.

The EU is no outlier. Just consider how TiSA would give multinational firms the right to sell financial derivatives, including those not yet invented, in all participating countries—nullifying domestic laws to the contrary. Likewise, it would ban national restrictions on the transfer of electronic information by financial service suppliers (like Google), thereby voiding state and federal laws.

The surrender of sovereignty is the end result of all trade deals: unified economies require unified governance, trade deals homogenize nations. Period. Even if such deal may improve the country’s overall bottom line—at least on paper and in abstraction from particular sectors of the economy—does homogenizing with the rest of the world tend to improve or degrade our national political character? To imagine the two can be totally separated is folly.

Globalization’s Sons: Fragility and Contagion
Politics is a complex, not a simple system—it works more like the weather than a washing machine. A washing machine is a simple mechanical system governed by first-order causality. That is, we know what causes what—no surprises. The weather, on the other hand, is a complex system governed by second-order causality, meaning that a known cause interacts with the system in a non-linear way—it may be magnified by subsequent effects, have unpredictable effects, or have no effect at all. It is out of respect for the complexity of political systems, and a fear of an all-encompassing catastrophe, that conservatives prefer strong state governments to a strong federal government—if something goes wrong in California, it need not directly harm Texas. The same logic applies to international organizations and treaties. Consider how all of Europe was drawn into World War I because of their political connectivity, while distant places like Argentina and China were barely affected.

Fragmented systems are more robust than connected systems. They are insulated against catastrophe.

But yet again, conservatives ignore their natural inclinations and argue in favor of increasing global trade because their eyes are on an increasing and ever more efficient bottom line. Economic globalization is a double-edged sword: while freer trade may increase global economic efficiency, it also increases the risk of contagion. For example, an academic study found that the frequency of economic crashes in America has doubled since the 1970s, when we abandoned the gold standard, dropped tariffs, and began accumulating a trade deficit. Why? Increased connectivity allows the spread of economic contagion around the world—often it magnifies it. The poster child for this is the European debt crisis: debt problems in tiny Greece brought all of European to its knees—a butterfly flapped its wings and a hurricane was born.

The Inseparability of Political and Economic Globalization
The final, and most damning, piece of evidence against economic globalization is that it invariably leads to political unification.

The perfect example is the evolution of the EU. The EU’s foundations were laid with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, a trade agreement that harmonized supply chains of said critical resources. Not only would it be economically expedient, it was marketed by its architect Robert Schuman in 1950—and like many another vain hope before it—as something that would “make war materially impossible.” From the beginning, European technocrats realized that economic integration would inevitably lead to political integration.

History proved them right. Trade agreement after agreement followed, each justified on economic grounds, and supported by conservatives—who could say no to free trade or to the prosperity it promised? And perhaps the EU did enrich Europe, but at what cost? A single market requires a single law: European nations sacrificed their political independence upon the altar of economic interdependence—Europe now shares an increasingly powerful legislature, single currency, and constitution.

We laugh at the Left for its cognitive dissonance on a host of issues, but we should be careful not to commit the same sin. Make no mistake, political and economic globalization are more than siblings, they are the two faces of Janus—by placing our faith in one, we venerate the other. It is time we returned to the measured and deliberate isolationism that America’s Founders recommended.


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