A Progressive Case for Free Trade

It is no secret that much of the unity among progressive Democrats stems from a shared anti-war ideology. From the massive protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s to the present-day rejection of interventionist policies in the Middle East, progressives have been united in their call for an end to unnecessary and counterproductive bloodshed. The 2016 Democratic primary provides clear evidence of this. Bernie Sanders effectively gained progressive support by frequently citing Hillary Clinton's hawkish stances, namely her vote for the Iraq War and support for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Furthermore, unified, antiwar progressives have proven to be a formidable electoral force in the recent past. In 2006, for instance, their grassroots mobilization was instrumental in restoring a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate (Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

In summary, it can be said that progressive Democrats share a common anti-war identity and that this identity is quite strong. One would then logically assume that these Democrats support policies that reduce the possibility for armed conflict and war. Any of Elizabeth Warren’s comments about trade, however, would show that this is not the case. Progressives like Warren regularly rail against free trade agreements on economic grounds, but fail to recognize the significant, positive externality that results from free trade: more stable, peaceful relations among nations. In a world sans tariffs and other trade barriers, the resultant mutual interdependence would lead to a tremendous increase in the cost of war, given the guarantee of considerable economic losses should war arise. In turn, nations would be much more hesitant to start conflicts. Immanuel Kant put it rightly in his Perpetual Peace when he said, “the spirit of trade cannot coexist with war.”

This idea that free trade can reduce the likelihood of wars among nations is not just theoretical, but backed by empirical evidence. One 2006 report, for instance, found that trade “mitigates the incentives for conflict,” particularly among geographically proximate countries. The report, which used data from the World Event Interaction Survey (WEIS) and the IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics, also found that free trade increases incentives for interstate cooperation among geographically distant countries. These countries, under other circumstances, would have little impetus to work together. Another 2012 report identified that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) “reduced the degree of international conflict… during the decade of the 1990s” and prescribed a reduction in barriers to both capital and trade flows in order to “promote a more peaceful world.”. While these two particular research papers concluded that trade and other forms of economic interaction reduce the likelihood of war, these conclusions are repeatedly found elsewhere. Meta-analyses, which analyze the significance of trends in the results of multiple studies, have found that such conclusions are an “empirical regularity”.

Given the war-reducing effects of free trade agreements, progressive Democrats’ combination of beliefs, which includes a simultaneous aversion to free trade and strong anti-war ideology, is contradictory. Simply put, it does not make much sense for anyone to hold anti-war beliefs yet reject policies that reduce the likelihood of war. Consequently, as progressives increasingly vilify free trade agreements, I believe they risk becoming ideologically inconsistent.

I do not wish to paint free trade as some sort of panacea, however. Free trade among nations, for instance, would have very minimal effects on the likelihood of intrastate strife or war. The Syrian Civil War is a prime example of this type of conflict. Free trade is better understood as a step towards a more cosmopolitan world in which large-scale wars are either extremely unlikely or obsolete. While such a world will take decades (if not centuries) to reach, we have a moral obligation to start the groundwork for getting there.

In addition, I recognize that improperly implemented free trade agreements can have localized, deleterious economic effects. Outsourcing of particular jobs is the most notable example of this. While the diffuse, positive effects outweigh the negative ones overall, this issue should still be confronted head-on by federal, state, and local governments through various initiatives (e.g. infrastructure spending, investment incentives, extension of unemployment insurance, and proactive job retraining in affected areas). The government should also do more extensive research on the long-term effects of free trade agreements so that it can more effectively allocate resources for these policy solutions. Free trade already helps the working class as they disproportionately benefit from less expensive, better-quality goods, and with complementary policies such as these it can help them to an even greater extent.

Despite the imperfections of free trade, its war-reducing effects should make it immensely attractive to the left wing of the Democratic Party. Not only does free trade reduce the likelihood of large-scale conflict, but it consequently reduces the need for military spending. Having a smaller armed forces means more money and resources can be put towards education, health care, and affordable housing, among other things. In the words of Bernie Sanders himself, “Let us wage a moral and political war against war itself, so that we can cut military spending and use that money for human needs.” In light of this, progressive Democrats should consider changing their current position on free trade agreements. An idea that comes to mind is a compromise between Democratic progressives and centrists, in which progressives accept a more trade-friendly platform and centrists concede to one of progressives’ demands (a tougher stance on Wall Street, maybe?). Such a compromise is not unfeasible and could pose as a powerful alternative to President Trump’s nationalist and trickle-down economic positions.