The Moral Case for Free Trade and Globalization

Commentary, Globalization, Robert Sopuck

Money’s a funny thing. We fight over it, worship it, and let it almost run our lives. But money is not an end in itself, merely the means to an end. In matters of trade and world commerce, it is a moral symbol of peaceful, voluntary exchange.

Economists are a dour lot and their profession is called the “dismal science” for a reason. “If you laid all the economists on earth end to end,” goes one of the milder jokes, “you still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.” To date, the argument over free trade and globalization has largely been made on economic grounds. Some professor in a bow tie expounds on the mathematical models that make free trade work and the audience goes to sleep.

That’s too bad, because the debate is crucial to rural communities, whose very survival depends on their ability to trade. More than 80% of what the rural Prairies produces is exported, largely to the United States. We need free and open trade to survive.

It always irks me when I hear the anti-trade crowd resort to moral arguments, as if they have a monopoly on caring. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most important justification for free trade is moral in nature. Free traders do their cause a grave injustice by referring only to the economic argument. The strongest justifications for free trade invoke the values of liberty and peace.

The Liberty Argument focuses on the fact that each and every person or organization has the moral right to engage in free and open commerce with any other sovereign individual or organization. This freedom generates mutually beneficial transactions that enrich us all. It’s so obvious that it’s often forgotten. Free exchange implies advantages for both parties.

The Peace Argument was well stated by the great French economist Frédéric Bastiat, who said, “When goods do not cross borders, armies will.” Free and open trading regimes have everything to gain by keeping the peace, and they usually do. Compare the “basket case” economy of the closed and increasingly dangerous North Korea with the free trade economy of South Korea. Which of these is the greater threat? I rest my case.

The Economic Argument is undeniable. The wealth of a country is increased when goods and services are produced at lower cost and are of a higher quality. Free trade improves all goods and services because competition embeds constant incentives for betterment. The free importation of foreign automobiles caused the overall quality of cars in North America to rise and inflation-adjusted costs to fall.

The next time you hear some anti-trade person adopt a tone of moral superiority, remember that the pro-trade position holds the moral high ground. Restrictions on trade hurt the poor, endanger the peace, and reduce liberty. It’s that simple.