It is erroneous to believe that free traders have been historically in favor of free trade agreements between governments.
Paradoxically, the opposite is true. Curiously, many laissez-faire advocates fall into the government-made trap by supporting “free-trade” treaties. However, as Vilfredo Pareto stated in the article “Traités de commerce of the Nouveau Dictionnaire d’Economie Politique” (1901):
If we accept free trade, treatises of commerce have no reason to exist as a goal. There is no need to have them since what they are meant to fix does not exist anymore, each nation letting come and go freely any commodity at its borders. This was the doctrine of J.B. Say and of all the French economic school until Michel Chevalier. It is the exact model Léon Say recently adopted. It was also the doctrine of the English economic school until Cobden. Cobden, by taking the responsibility of the 1860 treaty between France and England, moved closer to the revival of the odious policy of the treaties of reciprocity, and came close to forgetting the doctrine of political economy for which he had been, in the first part of his life, the intransigent advocate.
In 1859, the French liberal economist Michel Chevalier went to see Richard Cobden to propose a free trade treaty between France and England. For sure, this treaty, enacted in 1860, was a temporary success for free traders. What is less known however, is that at first, Cobden, in accordance with the free trade doctrine, refused to negotiate or sign any “free trade” treaty. His argument was that free trade should be unilateral, that it consists not in treaties but in complete freedom in international trade, regardless of where products come from.
Chevalier eventually succeeded in obtaining Cobden’s support. But Cobden was puzzled by the complete secrecy surrounding the negotiations and, in a letter to Lord Palmerston, he attributed this secrecy to the “lack of courage” of the French government.2 Similarly, today, the lack of transparency concerning free-trade negotiations is problematic and it is often hard to know what the content of a treaty will be.
Today, while some of these treaties are currently being negotiated, there are already examples of similar agreements enforced. One could refer to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) or more regional agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the European Economic Area (EEA).
But why would protectionist governments who spend their time hampering markets by giving monopolies and other kinds of privileges at national level, open markets at the international level? The very fact that governments are negotiating in the name of free trade should be suspicious for any libertarian or true advocate of free trade.
Intergovernmental Agreements Enhance Government Power
Murray Rothbard opposed NAFTA and showed that what the Orwellians were calling a “free trade” agreement was in reality a means to cartelize and increase government control over the economy. Several clues lead us to the conclusion that protectionist policies often hide behind free trade agreements, for as Rothbard said, “genuine free trade doesn’t require a treaty.”
The first clue is the intergovernmental and top down approach. Intergovernmentalism is nothing more than a process governments use to mutualize their respective sovereignties in order to complete tasks they are not able to accomplish alone. Nation-states are entities which rarely give up power. When they finalize agreements, it is to strengthen their power, not to weaken it. On the contrary, free trade requires a decline of governments’ regulatory power.
Also, free trade does not require interstate cooperation. On the contrary, free trade can be and has to be done unilaterally. As freedom of speech does not need international cooperation, freedom to trade with foreigners does not need governments and treaties. Similarly, our government should not rob their population with corporatist and protectionist policies just because others do. Anyone who believes in free trade does not fear unilateralism. The simple fact that bureaucrats and politicians do not conceive of the international economy outside of a legal frame settled by intergovernmental agreements is sufficient to show the mistrust they express toward individual freedom. This reinforces the conviction that these agreements are driven by mercantilist preoccupations rather than genuine free trade goals.
Extending Regulatory Control Beyond Your Own Borders
The second clue concerns the intense conflicts between governments on these agreements characterized by a high degree of technicality. History shows that multilateralism leads toward deadlock. The failure of the Doha Round is the cause of the proliferation of bilateral and regional initiatives. The contentious relations between governments come from the will of some states to dictate their norms to other countries’ producers through an international harmonization process. But this is the exact opposite of free trade. As economic theory shows us, exchange and the division of labor is not based on equality and harmonization but rather on differences and inequality. Furthermore, the technicality and secrecy surrounding free-trade agreements favor mercantilism and protectionism to the extent that technical regulations are used to favor producers who are politically well connected.
The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good illustration of this balance of power. It was at first an agreement between four countries (Brunei, New-Zealand, Singapore, and Chile.) which tried to resist some neighbors’ commercial influence, especially China. Then the United States came and convinced more countries (Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, and Japan) to join the negotiations. Let’s also notice that most of the countries invited are already bound by regional or bilateral agreements with the United States. China remains excluded from the process. This governmental drive toward regulatory hegemony is obviously the complete opposite of free trade. Indeed, free trade supposes letting consumers peacefully choose what products they want to promote rather than determining what is available through bureaucratic coercion.
Consolidation of Monopolies
The third clue concerns the vigor with which governments have tried over several decades to impose at the international level a more constraining legal framework for so-called “intellectual property.” The first initiatives appear in 1883 and 1886 with the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property and the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Amended several times during the twentieth century, the initiatives embrace, respectively, 176 and 168 states. These conventions are placed under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an international bureaucracy which joined the United Nations system in 1974. A turning point came in 1994 with the signature of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) administrated by the World Trade Organization (WTO). It is now incorporated as an essential part of the administration of international commerce and benefits from the WTO’s sanction mechanisms.
In 2012 we endured a fresh attempt by our governments to reduce our freedom to create and share intellectual works with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). And, if we look at the negotiations mandates of these trade agreements, we can see they all include a chapter on the reinforcement of “intellectual property” rights. Intellectual property has become a key concept of the international economy. But this must not hide its illegitimacy.
As Vilfredo Pareto remarked, “From the point of view of the protectionist, treaties of commerce are … what is most important for a country’s economic future.” Each time a new “free trade” treaty is enacted, what is seen is the attenuation of tariff barriers, but what is not seen is the sneaky proliferation and harmonization of non-tariff barriers impeding free enterprise and creating monopolies at an international scale at the expense of the consumer. It’s time for genuine free trade.