Free Trade Isn’t the Goal of These Treaties

By Jeff Milchen, March 12, 2014

It’s obvious why global corporations wish to see international treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) described as “free trade” pacts or to associate the pacts with advancing “free markets” — Americans gravitate toward the concept of freedom. But no one concerned with the many threats posed by these treaties should concede the false premise of those labels.

International tariffs already are so low as to be nearly inconsequential among most developed nations. In reality, these international trade agreements would erect as many trade barriers as they lower — especially when it comes to expanding corporations’ ability to exercise exclusive control of ideas or knowledge.

As economist Dean Baker notes, “These deals are in fact primarily about putting in place a structure of regulation that will over-ride national and sub-national governmental bodies. In some cases, such as with intellectual property protections, these regulations are 180 degrees at odds with free trade. They will raise prices and reduce the flow of goods and services.”

If free trade truly were the goal of the aforementioned treaties, the documents would be miniscule. The authors of the U.S. Constitution established open markets domestically with 54 words.

Yet NAFTA’s page count ran into thousands, which suggests how little the treaty had to do with free trade (myriad rules to prevent free trade require much explaining). These days, trade agreements have little to do with tariffs. They focus on power — specifically, giving global corporations the power to dictate to governments what is and is not an acceptable regulation of commerce.

Given the real thrust of these international agreements, those of us concerned with democracy, small business or protecting our quality of life should not cede the terms of debate by using corporate framing. Even calling for “fair trade, not free trade,” reinforces the framing preferred by transnational corporations and their mouthpieces. It implies opposition to freedom.

Distorting Property Rights
To be sure, some intellectual property rights are essential to ensure writers, researchers, musicians and businesses receive fair compensation for their work. But many of the temporary monopolies we’ve traditionally granted have been thoroughly corrupted with excessive breadth, duration and transferring rights from individuals to corporations. This stifles creativity rather than encouraging it.

For example, extending a copyright decades past the human creator’s death prevents others from building upon the original creation while doing nothing to reward actual creators. Other writers have provided many ideas on ways to reward creators without suppressing innovation.

Anyone genuinely interested in advancing free trade in the U.S. would do well to look first at domestic policy and precedent that allows global corporations to wield power preventing market competition.

Undermining Democracy
There are many other compelling reasons why small business owners and other citizens should reject attempts by Barrack Obama or any other U.S. President to wield “fast track authority” and speed treaties like TPP and TIPP through Congress without public debate.

Each new treaty yields more attempts by transnational corporations to sue and overturn democratically-enacted laws, even common-sense protections for public health. The American Independent Business Alliance, American Sustainable Business Council and many affiliates are concerned with these treaties because they could allow corporations to sue local governments that choose to enact local procurement policies, limit the size of big box stores and many other policies to protect local values and quality of life.

Trade agreements should not drive a “race to the bottom” which drives nations to weaken their standards, but too often the agreements block enforcement of domestic standards that advance responsible business practices and sustainability. We should not hesitate to frame “protectionism” of human rights, environment, small businesses and quality of life as a positive word and insist those values be part of any trade agreement financial transparency necessary for markets to work properly.

As Wayne Andreas, CEO of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland said, “There is not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in the free market,” adding, “The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.”

Citizens should not concede the false premise of these pacts being about “free trade,” but instead shift debate by calling out inaccurate language that undermines democracy and choosing words that accurately frame the conflict between the wish list of corporate executives and our right to self-governance.

Jeff Milchen co-founded the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA). He is the author of “Building Buy Local Campaigns that Shift Culture and Spending.” He’s now Tweeting at @jmilchen

See also: 

COOL Ruling Shows Trade Pacts’ Threat to Consumers, Small Businesses

The Small Business Case Against “Fast Track” for Trans-Pacific Partnership

This blog post by economist Dean Baker adds useful details to the argument.

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