Once upon a time, free-trade agreements were about just that: free trade. You abolish your tariffs and import restrictions, I’ll abolish mine. Trade increases, countries specialize in what they’re best equipped to do, efficiency increases, price levels drop, everybody wins.
Then environmentalists began honking about exporting pollution and demanded what amounted to imposing First World regulation on Third World countries who – in general – wanted the jobs and the economic stimulus from trade more than they wanted to make environmentalists happy. But the priorities of poor brown people didn’t matter to rich white environmentalists who already had theirs, and the environmentalists had political clout in the First World, so they won. Free-trade agreements started to include “environmental safeguards”.
Next, the labor unions, frightened because foreign workers might compete down domestic wages, began honking about abusive Third World labor conditions about which they didn’t really give a damn. They won, and “free trade” agreements began to include yet more impositions of First World pet causes on Third World countries. The precedent firmed up: free trade agreements were no longer to be about “free” trade, but rather about managing trade in the interests of wealthy First Worlders.
Today there’s a great deal of angst going on in the tech community about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Its detractors charge that a “free-trade” agreement has been hijacked by big-business interests that are using it to impose draconian intellectual-property rules on the entire world, criminalize fair use, obstruct open-source software, and rent-seek at the expense of developing countries.
These charges are, of course, entirely correct. So here’s my question: What the hell else did you expect to happen? Where were you idiots when the environmentalists and the unions were corrupting the process and the entire concept of “free trade”?
The TPP is a horrible agreement. It’s toxic. It’s a dog’s breakfast. But if you stood meekly by while the precedents were being set, or – worse – actually approved of imposing rich-world regulation on poor countries, you are partly to blame.
The thing about creating political machinery to fuck with free markets is this: you never get to be the last person to control it. No matter how worthy you think your cause is, part of the cost of your behavior is what will be done with it by the next pressure group. And the one after that. And after that.
The equilibrium is that political regulatory capability is hijacked by for the use of the pressure group with the strongest incentives to exploit it. Which generally means, in Theodore Roosevelt’s timeless phrase, “malefactors of great wealth”. The abuses in the TPP were on rails, completely foreseeable, from the first time “environmental standards” got written into a trade agreement.
That’s why it will get you nowhere to object to the specifics of the TPP unless you recognize that the entire context in which it evolved is corrupt. If you want trade agreements to stop being about regulatory carve-outs, you have to stop tolerating that corruption and get back to genuinely free trade. No exemptions, no exceptions, no sweeteners for favored constituencies, no sops to putatively noble causes.
It’s fine to care about exporting pollution and child labor and such things, but the right way to fix that is by market pressure – fair trade labeling, naming and shaming offenders, that sort of thing. If you let the politicians in they’ll do what they always do: go to the highest bidder and rig the market in its favor. And then you will get screwed.
Application of this principle to domestic policy is left as an easy exercise for the reader.