A common refrain from politicians who want to claim they support free trade while still satisfying their core protectionist constituencies is to say they “I’m for free trade but…” Michael Kinsley did a great job exposing this lie four years ago:
The “but” of Howard Dean’s “free trade but” is more traditional. He professes concern about lost blue-collar jobs here in America; about scandalously low pay and miserable working conditions in Third World factories that export to American consumers; about the ravaging of the environment by these same factories. Dean endorses the principles of the International Labor Organization, which include freedom to organize and bargain collectively, abolition of slave and child labor, and non-discrimination. He says he’s all for trade—he just wants a “level playing field.”
The reasonable free-trade position (i.e., mine) is that buying a product does implicate you to some extent in the process by which it was made. And there are working conditions so wretched and wages so low and practices, like child labor, so heartless that you do want your own government to ban imports of the product at issue, to avoid the taint of association and, with luck, to pressure the exporting nation to change.
But this is very different from demanding a “level playing field” on environmental regulations, worker health and safety, and so on. American standards on these things are a luxury of affluence. If we had insisted on these standards for our own economy while we were becoming affluent, we never would have gotten there. And indeed, the effect of a “level playing field” rule—blocking imports that weren’t produced in accord with American-level regulatory standards—will not be to make jobs in poor countries as well-paying, safe, and good for the environment as jobs in America. The effect will be to wipe out those jobs.