Two and a half years ago the business world was in fits over the nullification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and how the resort to targeted tariffs to shape negotiations toward new, bilateral agreements would inflame trade wars, wars in which consumers would be the worst victims. There was much reviewing of the many virtues of global free trade, and how policies that encourage international trade have the twin advantages of promoting economic growth and minimizing international tensions.
These used to be fairly routine claims, easy to recall and widely agreed. There were some disagreements, of course: people who opposed NAFTA and other international trade policies generally would cite the declining number of domestic manufacturing jobs, the growing dependence on minimum-wage jobs, the dominance of big-box (and now online) retailing, and numerous other symptoms of an era and a culture that commoditizes human existence.
Both sides have valid points, or at least, both are not wrong. A global economy was established over recent decades, and it made possible many good things, including both peace and prosperity. But it’s also fair to hold global economics responsible for the sterility of modern life, the attitude that every desire can be fulfilled at a price, and the practical truth that no law or tradition or principle can stand if it proves “inefficient” to some emergent issue.
These were arguments that evolved for decades and mattered as recently as last year. Should we have a global economy, in which the only operative standard is efficiency? Or, should we have policies that protect domestic interests, establishing artificial terms to offset the inefficiency that some domestic interests cannot or will not address?
This contrast has often been framed as a simple choice but is not and never was simple. Nor is it a choice any longer, because the global economy will not cease to exist even if our government revamps trade regulations. Note that NAFTA is gone but the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is in effect, and negotiations on a trade agreement with China are ongoing. It’s possible that multiple bilateral trade agreements may preserve the best economic effects of the WTO agreements.
But, like a TV detective I still find myself wondering what happened to the principled commitment to free trade and open societies that shaped so much of business and international affairs over the past half century? Is it not surprising that this issue has had virtually no role in the 2020 U.S. presidential election? Am I wrong to wonder if none of the proponents of that cause still believe it?
In 2018 and 2019 it seemed possible that global trade agreements had simply become outdated. It had become obvious that certain nations were indifferent to the terms of fair trade: Nations violate agreements because ignoring the terms carries no penalty – and because they achieved their purposes by entering the agreement, not by upholding it. This also has become obvious for global agreements meant to address nuclear proliferation, human rights, animal protection, climate control, or any other global “concern”: the violator nations want to inhibit their opposition, not to cooperate with it.
But another realization emerging now will gut the argument that free trade fosters freedom. It is that “global” no longer means “worldwide” because geographical markets are not as valuable as individual customers. Global means “universal,” because whoever or wherever you are, your identity must be and will be accounted for, even justified.
Obviously, if you’re producing castings or supplying products and services to manufacturing customers you need good information about what is needed, where, and when. Manufacturing businesses’ energies are focused on the present. On finished products. They may exist globally, but they work in markets.
The new globalists do not fight for markets or opportunity; they want “presence.” They arrive and will not leave. They want access and information, and they will persist until they have it. Their new frontiers are minds and consciences. They want to know what you have done so that they can anticipate what you may do next. They expect you to cooperate by sharing your records and data, promising that will make everything more convenient, more transparent. And while we ponder what possibilities may be available with free and open global trade, we lose sight of the reality that this global economy is shaped by rigid compliance to choices and standards that will be defined for us.