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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
14 May 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 20

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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The Coalition to Keep Poor People Poor

Free trade, which helps the poor, can only be restricted by government coercion in response to pressure from special interest groups that stand to gain from limits on trade.

by Jerome F. Winzig

For several decades now, liberals have claimed the moral high ground when American public policy is debated. Frequently, their views are supported by a sympathetic news media. They often portray the liberal/left point of view as caring about poor and ordinary people and dismiss the conservative/right point of view as favoring the wealthy.

Even the term "special interest group" has a slant to it. It is usually applied to multinational corporations, industry lobbyists, company political action committees, or other business organizations. Rarely is it applied to environmental organizations, foundations that espouse political goals, class action lawyers, unions, or other liberal organizations.

Last month, however, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman challenged this stereotype. He said the protestors at the Quebec Summit of the Americas should be called "the Coalition to Keep Poor People Poor." Writing from Ghana, he pointed out how important free trade was to Africa, observing that few Africans joined the Quebec demonstrations because "they understand that -- with the exception of the environmentalists -- this anti-globalization movement is largely the well intentioned but ill informed being led around by the ill intentioned and well informed (protectionist unions and anarchists) who do not serve Africa's interests."

Friedman's strong words point out that the anti-globalization, anti-free trade efforts are orchestrated by special interest groups that stand to benefit from restrictions on free trade. Poor people, in contrast, lose when trade is restricted and gain when trade is open. Friedman points out that since the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act last year, Madagascar's textile exports to the United States have already risen by 120 percent, Nigeria's and Malawi's by 1000 percent, and South Africa's by 47 percent. Friedman calls this "Real jobs for real people."

During the Quebec summit, Pierre Lemieux, a visiting professor of economics at the University of Quebec at Hull, wrote that liberty means free trade. According to Lemieux, "The primary rationale for free trade is not that exporters should gain larger markets, but that consumers should have more choice--even if the former is a consequence of the latter."

Those who oppose free trade are really advocates of big government, state control, and less freedom. The so-called anarchists who oppose free trade are no anarchists at all, for they really favor government coercion that restricts the buying and selling of merchandise between consenting adults. As Lemieux says, "Once we realize that free trade is but the individual's liberty to exchange across political borders, it is easy to see that forbidding it requires punishment or threats of punishment. You have to fine or jail the importer who doesn't abide by trade restrictions."

When President Bush sent his request for "trade promotion authority" to Congress last week, he also sought to clarify the moralities involved in free trade: "Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative. Trade creates jobs for the unemployed. When we negotiate for open markets, we are providing new hope for the world's poor. And when we promote open trade, we are promoting political freedom. Societies that open to commerce across their borders will open to democracy within their borders, not always immediately, and not always smoothly, but in good time."

Restrictions on free trade are inherently antithetical to freedom. They usually accrue over the course of many years as special interest groups pressure governments to limit individual rights. As President Bush said, "We've allowed a new kind of protectionism to appear in this country. It talks of workers, while it opposes a major source of new jobs. It talks of the environment, while opposing the wealth-creating policies that will pay for clean air and water in developing nations. It talks of the disadvantaged, even as it offers ideas that would keep many of the poor in poverty."

More straight talk like this could shatter the myths perpetuated by the Coalition to Keep Poor People Poor.

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