The New “Mercantile System”

The U.S. Congress quietly passed three “free trade” bills last week, the kind of laws that — though thoroughly characteristic of the structural problems of today’s economy — often seem unremarkable and uncontroversial. Allowing exchange of goods and services across national boundaries appears innocuous enough, permitting all regions of the world to benefit from doing what they do best.

The problem is that the economic principle enshrined in free trade treaties is the preservation of corporate privilege, not the liberation of commerce. One could, with some accuracy, say that the antecedents of contemporary free trade agreements were born of conquest and plunder — that to the political class, “free trade” has forever meant “organized monopolization by elites.”

We can look to the project of colonialism as one among the progenitors of the present day “free trade” that takes place under the watchword of globalization. Commenting on “[a]ll the different regulations of the mercantile system” that obtained in his day, Adam Smith remarked that “[m]onopoly of one kind or another … seems to be the sole engine” of that system.

Smith drew a bright line between genuine free markets and the power dynamics that “necessarily derange” the natural distribution of wealth. In particular, Smith observed that “trade to America and the East Indies” was exceptionally sullied and corrupted by the symbiotic relationship between political and economic power foci.

In and of itself, the interconnection of the globe, taking place through voluntary exchange and the social communication that accompanies it, is of course completely unobjectionable. But when we compare that notion of free trade to the one so keenly imposed upon the world by governments, the differences between the two become apparent.

Today, as in Smith’s time, the state is actively engaged in ensuring that the most powerful corporate actors are protected from “the troublesome competition of such odious and disagreeable rivals.” The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, for instance, includes an Intellectual Property Rights Chapter “to ensure that American intellectual property rights are efficiently and effectively protected.”

Again, while that sounds relatively harmless, protection of American IP rights translates to handing U.S. big business the exclusive right to control, license and profit from the entire capital base of the Information Age’s “New Economy.” From software to prescription drugs — and everything in between — IP allows the rich to foist extortionate monopoly prices on society, prices that are neither related to companies’ costs nor tempered by the forces of a genuine free market.

The end result of intervention, the aggregate of all distortions created by coercive force, is to allow a small coterie of the indolent wealthy classes to skim off the top of productive activity. The moneyed, political classes of “developing” countries are quite content to betray their natural resources and their poor to the predation of the West, at least as long as they stay on the right side of the raw deal.

Instead of the neocolonialism we’re actually getting, market anarchists would have the free trade and the free markets that we are so earnestly promised by Washington — with real competition and the “level playing field” we keeping hearing about. Only then, when the global markets are truly free from the oppression of the state, will we witness the advertised advantages of free trade.

Citations to this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist