No contradiction between pro-free-trade and progressive

What it means to be “progressive” can be as nebulous as defining what it means to be “conservative”, “socialist” or “liberal”.

But if the core definition of what it means to be “progressive” is to be in favour of policies that would steer a country toward being at the top of the game by one simple metric — how its citizens respond to the question, How satisfied are you with your life? — then it is important to identify and pursue the policies that have the most favourable odds of producing a better life for the greatest number.

Thus, it was surprising today to see the suggestion in the National Post that being pro-free-trade is somehow incompatible with being progressive. The comment in question concerned NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who has shown a level of sympathy toward free trade agreements out of step with his party’s traditional position. As reporter Tristin Hopper wrote:

If there was one thing that united the NDP in the 1990s, it was opposition to NAFTA. But Mulcair isn’t only indifferent to free trade, he likes it, as evidenced by his support for agreements with Japan, Jordan, India, Brazil and South Africa. Labour activists often oppose free trade on the grounds that Canada might lose jobs because another country will have better and more efficient workers. But even this appears to be fine with the NDP leader. “I don’t mind being beaten out by a competitor on the manufacture of steel if they have labour rights, environmental rights and we’re on an even playing field,” said Mulcair in 2014.

Yet a pro-free-trade position might be more progressive than many on either the left or the right might like to think. For many years, economists have recognized that reducing barriers to trade is a more effective path for raising overall living standards than are protectionist policies. As Bryan Caplan documented in The Myth of the Rational Voter:

There are numerous surveys of the economic beliefs of both economists and the general public. They broadly confirm the “wide divergence” with which Newcomb maintained “all are familiar.” Take the case of free trade versus protection. A long-running survey initiated by J. R. Kearl and coauthors has repeatedly asked economists whether they agree that “tariffs and import quotas usually reduce the general welfare of society.” In 2000, 72.5% mainly agreed, and an additional 20.1% agreed with provisos; only 6% generally disagreed. The breakdowns for 1990 and the late 1970s are even more lopsided in favour of free trade.

Five years later, a survey of 210 randomly selected American Economics Association members found that “the overwhelming majority (87.5%) agree that the U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade.”

In January 2014, this blog identified several economic factors as being strongly correlated with higher overall citizen satisfaction with life: these included employment rates, relatively rare instances of long-term unemployment, personal earnings, and household disposable income.

If policymakers have a choice between two policies — one of which, according to the evidence, has better odds than the other of producing an outcome that will raise citizens’ overall standard of living — they have an obligation to the people they were elected to serve to pursue that policy.

If that is not consistent with a past position — as was the case with Brian Mulroney in the ’80s and is the case with the NDP today — they have a duty as public servants to change their thinking and their position accordingly.

As long as the evidence continues to support the view that a pro-free-trade policy is better than protectionist or self-sufficiency policies for overall citizen well-being, let’s call free trade for what it is: a sensible policy.

About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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