Free Trade: A First-World Problem?

Donald Trump was right when he said that he and Bernie Sanders agree on (at least) one thing: free trade agreements.

Both oppose them; both blame them as almost singularly responsible for the loss of American manufacturing jobs; and both have promised to tear up the ones that exist and/or to walk away from any future trade deals. Now that Bernie has failed to get anti-TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) language into the Democratic Party platform, his supporters can turn to Trump as their best hope of scuttling free trade.

Ironic, isn't it.

In fact, a Bernie-Donald alliance on trade would resemble the Labor-Poshtocracy partnership that led to the "Brexit" vote in (formerly) Great Britain. Over-privileged conservative swells like Boris Johnson got what they wanted thanks to the votes of working people in Labor strongholds.

The economic case against trade - in both countries - is not at all clear. Even before the confetti had been swept up at the "Leave" celebration, the Brexit crowd had the courtesy to admit that, actually, they were lying about their economic claims. In this country, factories across the industrial heartland started closing long before NAFTA or any other free trade deal. Adam Davidson did a nice essay in the Sunday Times Magazine (July 10) focused on Northeastern Pennsylvania that made this point quite wonderfully. Never mind the facts: stopping the TPP and curtailing free trade will make America great again.

That so-called progressives, on both sides of the Atlantic, should retreat to a crude economic nationalism in their discussion of trade represents a historic about-face. Once upon a time, progressives were deeply suspicious of the kind of braying nationalist jingoism of Trump and the Brexiteers. Instead, they were committed to embracing internationalism - a sense that the wealthy developed world had a moral (as well as an economic) obligation to help the rest of the world along.

The international dimension of trade has been almost entirely absent from the political debate this season, and that's too bad. While free-trade isn't really responsible for the economic anxieties of the white working class in this country or in England, there is a great deal of evidence demonstrating that trade has benefited millions of people around the world.

In 2000 world leaders met in New York and signed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. There are 8 of them, and eliminating extreme poverty is number 1. It was easy to dismiss all this - another meaningless UN document destined to gather dust after being ignored and scoffed at. And almost exactly a year after they were signed the Twin Towers came down. The MDG haven't made the front page much since.

But by 2015, some remarkable progress had been made on those goals. Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by 50%, and most of that decline has come since 2000. In 1990, 14% of those in the developing world were classified as the "working middle class" (defined as living on more than $4/day); by 2015 that percentage had tripled. In China alone, more people have been lifted out of poverty since 1990 than at any period in human history.

There are undoubtedly lots of factors that have contributed to these trends, but trade is certainly among them. As a UN publication put it in 2008: "In the last decade, trade has helped trigger strong growth in developing countries, whose share in the global trade has increased from 29 per cent in 1996 to 37 per cent in 2006 and whose exports have consistently been growing at a faster rate than those of developed countries. This has stimulated growth in export revenues of developing countries." 

Looked at globally, in other words, international trade has been an enormous success. It has generated problems of its own to be sure, and its successes have been uneven in different parts of the world. But trade has been central in making the lives of tens of millions better than they might otherwise have been. Once upon a time, progressives would have cheered such news.

Ignoring this success, however, or not caring much about it, is what enables Labor voters to want to leave the European Union and it is what creates common cause between Trump and Sanders as they both trash international trade. In an earlier generation, progressives cared about the fate of those in the developing world and argued for policies that would improve those lives. I don't think they will be singing the "Internationale" at Labor conferences anymore.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.