The Libertarian Delusion That "Real" Free Trade Would Work

In the angry responses to my recent blog post, "Libertarianism, the new Anti-Americanism," one argument came up again and again:

"The problems with free trade that we see today are not the result of true free trade; they are the result of the bastardized version inflicted on us by treaties like NAFTA and the proposed Korea free trade agreement, and if only we had true, authentic free trade, all these problems would go away."

This is an attractive position for libertarians and other free-market true believers, because it enables them to simultaneously complain about the obvious trade problems we do have while preserving their faith in the ultimate supremacy of free markets. It reminds me of how Trotskyite communists used to be some of the toughest critics of Stalin while remaining convinced that real communism was the answer.

While there certainly are plenty of treaty-specific problems that have nothing to do with free trade per se -- like allowing foreign judges to overrule our democratically-made laws -- there is no way one can lay all the problems free trade causes at the door of imperfect implementation. That is to say, free trade on its own, in the purest possible form, would still be a disaster for this country.

Witness the fact that, despite NAFTA and all the other legal impedimenta, America's trade (on the import side) basically is free. The Commerce Department reports that our tariff collections are now well under 1% of the volume of our imports.

Granted, there are non-tariff barriers (though not many in the U.S., compared to other major developed nations). But unless someone can explain how these barriers are responsible for the problems of free trade, then we are forced to the conclusion that whatever problems 99%-free trade is causing, 100%-free trade wouldn't be any better.

So it's time for libertarians et al to stop taking ideological refuge in an ideal world we don't live in. The problems of free trade in the real world cast doubt on their ideology, and they can't hide from that by complaining that the real world isn't perfect enough.