Thursday, February 05, 2004
Another drop left out of the bucket
One reason that they aren't is that some comparative advantages exist only because many developing nations have egregious standards for the protection of workers and the environment. Moreover, many free trade agreements act as incentives for a further lowering of standards. So while the workers of developing nations make some gains in terms of increased economic well-being, these gains are offset by losses in other areas. And while citizens of developed nations make gains in terms of buying power, these gains are also offset by various losses, including the loss of working class jobs.
The upshot is that free trade agreements tend to create an uneven playing field, and tend to do it in a way that penalizes the lower classes of all signatories.
Still, the math is compelling. This has led free trade moderates to suggest that free trade agreements would be acceptable if they included provisions requiring all participatory nations to meet minimum standards for things like workplace safety, political freedom, and environmental responsibility.
The Bush Administration has paid lip service to this idea. They even pledged that CAFTA, the recently negotiated free trade agreement between the U.S. and the countries of Central America, would, "establish a cooperative program to improve labor laws and enforcement and build capacity of Central American nations to monitor and enforce labor rights." Talk is cheap. In their budget proposal the Bush Administration sets aside $18 million to fund international labor rights programs. This is an 82% drop from last year. (Source: Human Rights Watch)
This reminds me of something Rawls wrote. He was concerned with the conditions under which a well-ordered political community could persist across generations. Among the basic requirements, according to Rawls, is that citizens be reasonable. One condition of reasonableness, as Rawls understands it, is to be motivated to engage in social cooperation on mutually acceptable terms. Another condition is to recognize that, "many of our most important judgments are made under conditions where it is not to be expected that conscientious persons with full powers of reason, even after free discussion, will all arrive at the same conclusion."
Another way of putting this second condition is to say that reasonableness requires treating those you disagree with charitably. Rather than assuming them to be stupid, or evil, or dishonest, you should treat them with respect and assume that they have (what seem to be) good reasons for their views.
I think Rawls is right that this kind of reasonableness is a virtue, both of citizens and of political discourse. But the notorious problem with virtues is that they aren't worth much unless conditions are ripe for their effective exercise.
The Bush Administration expressed a willingness to incorporate requirements for more stringent labor standards in CAFTA. A free trade moderate employing the principle of charity should interpret this as evidence of a desire to find mutually acceptable terms of social cooperation. Until the funding is left behind.
There is room for reasonable disagreement about free trade, and about most of the issues that divide us. Unfortunately, we have somehow acquired a political class that is unable to muster the basic honesty required to make reasoned discussion possible.
This is the real crisis of values in America. While politicians launch investigations into Superbowl boobs and fret about the dissolution of the family they ignore the most fundamental threat to our democracy. And they have to, because the threat doesn't come from entertainers, and it doesn't come from unwed mothers, and it doesn't come from bearded lesbians, and it doesn't come from illegal immigrants. It doesn't come from any group they can marginalize and attack. It comes from us, and it comes from them.