So-Called Free Trade Agreements are to Free Trade, as the Ministry of Love is to Love

There’s an unfortunate tendency among many libertarians to accept at face value neoliberalism’s self-identification with “free markets” and “free trade.”  For example Jim Bovard, who usually comes down on the right side of things involving government power, in “Feeling Your Pain” dismissed Seattle anti-WTO protesters as “opponents of trade, capitalism, and modern civilization,” and accepted the Uruguay Round as a straightforward agreement to “lower trade barriers”—despite arguably creating a system of trade barriers more statist and more protectionist than the wildest imaginings of Smoot and Hawley.

At The Washington Times (!), Cato’s Daniel Griswold comments:  “Despite complaints from critics on the left, such as Ralph Nader, and even a few libertarians, such as Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, membership in the World Trade Organization serves Americas national interest.”

WTO membership, he argues, helps both to keep U.S. markets open, “for the benefit of U.S. consumers and import-using industries,” but “also promotes trade liberalization abroad, which opens markets and keeps them open for U.S. exporters….”

Further, he says, WTO membership “does not limit our freedom as individual Americans”;  rather, trade agreements “limit the power of governments to interfere in the peaceful commerce of their citizens,”   which in turn “enhances the liberty and prosperity of all Americans.”

It’s interesting that Griswold specifically mentions “genetically modified crops,” “high-technology products,” and “copyrighted sound recordings” among the American exports promoted by the WTO.  That suggests, however obliquely, what fake “free trade” agreements like the Uruguay Round of GATT are really all about.

It’s no coincidence, comrades—as Lenin might say—that the main beneficiary industries of the Uruguay Round and the rest of the phony “free trade” regime are those most dependent on “intellectual property.”  Strong—nay, draconian—IP law is at the heart of the neoliberal “free trade” agenda.  Again, it’s no coincidence that the leading industries in the global economy are software, entertainment, biotech, electronics, and the kind manufacturing in which corporations outsource all production to independent contractors and rely entirely on ownership of “intellectual property” to maintain control of their supplier networks.

In short, “intellectual property” plays the same protectionist role for the global corporate economy that tariffs did for the old national industrial economies.   From the perspective of transnational corporations, it has the virtue of decoupling protectionism from geography.  As a result, all the inconvenient barriers to a single corporation transferring  production inputs and unfinished goods across national lines are removed.  The barriers enforced by IP protectionism coincide, not with national borders, but corporate walls.  But just as much as did tariffs, “intellectual property” regulates who is allowed to sell a given product in a given market and protects the privileged “owner” of that “right” against competition from unauthorized sellers.

To get some perspective on just how protectionist, how statist, how authoritarian “intellectual property” is, let’s go back to Griswold’s Bearded-Spock universe claim that the WTO and the accords it enforces don’t limit our freedom as individual American citizens.  Mr. Griswold should try getting a DMCA takedown letter, or getting his Internet service cut off by the “three strikes” laws likely to be passed pursuant to ACTA.  He should try wearing a T-shirt with DeCSS printed on it, or try playing a DRM’ed CD on an unauthorized platform or using a computer sabotaged with Genuine Advantage.  He should try manufacturing generic spare parts and accessories for proprietary industrial platforms, or selling an identical knockoff of a proprietary industrial design for a price actually approaching the marginal cost of production.

If Mr. Griswold equates the WTO to “free trade” and believes the neoliberal trade agenda doesn’t limit our freedom as citizens, all I can say is his ideas of “free trade” and “individual freedom” are worthless to any genuine libertarian.

If it’s true that the Uruguay Round and WTO don’t limit our individual freedoms, it’s true only to the extent that they’re unenforceable.  And thank God, they are.

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