CONSUMER SOVEREIGNTY

Few good ideas have come under so many logically and empirically false attacks as free trade.

It is hard to argue logically against the proposition that all those who participate in voluntary trade must expect to benefit as a result, regardless of whether they are trading with fellow citizens or foreign trading partners.But that doesn't keep those who want to restrict others' freedom of choice from constantly rolling out political attacks.

The hottest current buzzword in anti-trade circles is sovereignty. International initiatives that aim at reducing government-imposed impediments to free trade, initiatives like the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement, have resulted in some domestic laws being overturned and others being challenged because they discriminated against foreign companies.

So the initiatives are attacked for undermining government sovereignty over economic, labor, environmental and safety issues. In the words of North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, ''Nafta and other trade agreements present the greatest challenge to state sovereignty that we have.''

The criticism is accurate, in part. Such agreements do restrict government powers to discriminate against foreign producers. But foreign producers are the allies of American consumers when they offer lower prices and/or higher-quality products than would otherwise be available domestically.

Therefore, such restrictions on government control advance the general welfare of Americans. And since, in the words of philosopher Herbert Spencer, ''Society exists for the benefit of its members, not the members for the benefit of society,'' whether those agreements restrict government sovereignty in the process is irrelevant.

To argue against free trade because it limits government sovereignty, then, is really to argue for free trade because it expands consumer sovereignty.

But to keep questions arising as to why we should favor our government against our fellow citizens, sovereignty defenders then take one more misleading step: They portray the issue as a matter of patriotism. The debate is framed in terms of government protectors and domestic producers vs. foreign producers, with the obvious implication that we should therefore favor ''our'' laws and producers.

However, such a presentation substantially misrepresents reality. A better way of understanding the issues is as collusion between domestic producers and government to rip off domestic consumers, incidentally harming foreign producers in the process.

Americans buy from foreign producers when they offer a better deal, increasing consumers' wealth by charging lower prices and/or offering quality in consumers' eyes. When trade restrictions, even those dressed up in the language of sovereignty, take away those superior options, it makes American consumers poorer in real terms.

And patriotism does not imply we should favor U.S. producers over U.S. consumers (though special interest contributions and support may imply it).

The sovereignty-patriotism argument against free trade is thus little more than a Trojan horse for anti-consumer legislation, reflecting Adam Smith's observation that ''I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.''

Emotionally laden terms like sovereignty and patriotism can be distracting. However, they don't change the reality that free trade creates wealth, and trade restrictions destroy wealth.

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