Daily Archives: January 12, 2011

“Free markets” and “free trade” as a religion

Free marketeers fancy themselves to be rational, calculating beasts. In reality, their adoration of the market is essentially religious. They believe that it  will  solve all economic ills,  if  not immediately, then in the medium to long term. Armed with this supposed objective truth, they  proselytize about the moral evils  and inefficiencies of public service and the  wondrous efficiency and ethical outcomes of private enterprise regardless of the  practical effects of their policies or the frequent misbehaviour of those in command of large private companies. Their approach is essentially that of the religious believer.

Like the majority of religious believers, “free marketeers and traders” are none too certain of the theology of their religion. (I am always struck by how many of them lack a grasp of even basic economic theory and are almost invariably wholly ignorant of economic history). They recite their economic catechism sublime in the concrete of their ignorance.

The religion has its roots in the first half of the 18th century when there were occasional attempts to suggest tariff reform, but the idea only became a serious political policy in the 1780s with the advent of Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister in 1784 who long toyed with “economical reform”.

The 18th century also provided the religion with its holy book, The Wealth of Nations by the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith. This strongly argued for “free markets” and “free trade”, but Smith also recognised the  demands of national security, the need for government to engage in social provision such as road building and maintenance which would not otherwise be done and, must importantly, the nature of a society and its economy.  Here is Smith on the Navigation Acts: “…the Act of Navigation by diminishing the number of buyers; and we are thus likely not only to buy foreign goods dearer, but to sell our own cheaper, than if there were a  more perfect freedom of trade. As defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence, the Act of Navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.” (Wealth of Nations Bk IV. ch ii)

But Smith and his book suffered the fate of all those who found religions, secular or otherwise. As the decades passed Smith’s cautious approach  was redrawn in the minds of his disciples to become a surgically “clean” mechanical ideology in which all that mattered was the pursuit of profit and the growth of trade and industry through the application of the “holy edicts” of open markets and comparative advantage.  The disciples,  like other religious believers, avidly quoted the passages from their holy book which suited their purposes and ignored those which did not. They also found a further holy text in Thomas Malthus’ Essay on Population of 1802, whose predictions, although unproven by events,  could be used to demonstrate that economic expansion was vital if widespread starvation was not to occur.

The clinical, soulless and inhuman nature of the laissez faire idea as it evolved is exemplified by the English economist David Ricardo. Here is a flavour of his mindset:”Under a system of perfectly free commerce each country naturally devotes its capital and labour to such employments as are most beneficial to both. The pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole. By stimulating industry, and by using most efficaciously the peculiar powers bestowed by nature, it distributes labour most economically, while increasing the general mass of the production it diffuses general benefits, and binds together by one common tie of interest and intercourse the universal society of nations”.  (David Ricardo in The fall of protection p 174).

The Napoleonic wars largely foiled Pitt’s wish for broad reform and placed “free trade” in suspended animation as a serious political idea until the 1820s, when cautious attempts at tariff reform again were made. But underneath the political elite was a radical class who were very much enamoured of wholesale economical reform. With the Great Reform Act of 1832 they were given their opportunity to become part of the political elite. They took it with both hands, their most notable and extreme proponents being John Bright and Richard Cobden backed by the intellectual power of David Ricardo – all three became MPs.

Within a dozen years of the first election under the  Great Reform Act’s passing, Parliament had been captured by the disciples of Adam Smith and the pass on protection had been sold by of all people a Tory prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, an action which kept the Tories from power for most of the next 40 years.

 Such was their religious credulity that the “free traders”  advocated not merely opening up Britain’s markets, both at home and in the colonies, to nations who would allow Britain equivalent  access to their markets, they advocated opening up Britain’s markets regardless of how other nations acted. The consequence was, as we have seen, disastrous for Britain.

 Disraeli in a speech on 1st February 1849 cruelly dissected this insanity:” There are some who say that foreigners will not give us their production for nothing, and that therefore we have no occasion to concern ourselves as to the means and modes of repayment. There is no doubt that foreigners will not give us their goods without exchange for them; but the question is what are the terms of exchange most beneficial for us to adopt. You may glut markets, but the only effect of your attempt to struggle against the hostile tariffs  by opening your ports is that you exchange more of your own labour each year for a less quantity of foreign labour, that you render British labour less efficient, that you degrade British labour, diminish profits, and, therefore, must lower wages; while philosophical enquirers have shown that you will finally effect a change in the distribution of the precious metals  that must be pernicious and may be fatal to this country. It is for these reasons that all practical men are impressed with a conviction that you should adopt reciprocity as the principle of your tariff  – not merely from practical experience, but as an abstract truth. This was the principle of the commercial negations at Utrecht  – which were followed by Mr Pitt  in his  commercial negotiations at Paris – and which were wisely adopted and applied by the Cabinet of Lord Liverpool, but which were deserted flagrantly and unwisely in 1846″. (The fall of Protection pp 337/8″).

Ironically, the “free traders” make the same general errors as Marxists. They believe that everything stems from economics. For the neo-liberal the market has the same pseudo-mystical significance that the dialectic has for the Marxist.  Just as the Marxist sees the dialectic working inexorably through history to an eventual state of communism (or a reversion to barbarism to be exact), so the neo-liberal believes that the market will solve any economic problem and most social ills. Neither ideology works because it ignores the reality of human nature and its sociological realisation.

The one track economic mentality of the early “free traders” is well represented by the father of J S Mill, James Mill:”The benefit which is derived from exchanging one commodity for another arises from the commodity received rather than the from the commodity given. When one country exchanges, or in other words, traffics with  another, the whole of its advantage consists of the in the commodities imported. It benefits by the importation and by nothing else. A protecting duty which, if it acts at all, limits imports, must limit exports likewise, checking and restraining national industry, thus diminishing national wealth.” (The fall of protection p 174). And to Hell with any social or strategic consideration or changing economic circumstances.

After the Great War and the fall of “free trade” as public policy in 1931, the religion went underground for nearly fifty years. When it re-emerged as a political idea in the 1970s the politicians who  fell under its spell were every bit as unquestioning and credulous as those of the 1840s. Tony Blair’ statement on Globalisation, ie, free trade, at the 2005 Labour Party Conference  shows that it is alive and kicking today. Scorning any attempt to discuss Globalisation, Blair said of those who wished to oppose it “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”. (Daily Telegraph 1 10 2005.)

 None of this would matter very much now if those who believe in “free markets”  and  “free  trade”  were  without  political  power. Unfortunately, theirs is the elite ideology of the moment and the past 25 years. In Britain, the Tories may be more fanatical in their devotion to the market as panacea, but Blairite Labour have caught more than a mild dose of the disease. A good example of this is their response to house price hyperinflation where they desperately and futilely attempt remedies within the constraints of what they perceive to be “free market” disciplines rather than opting for the obvious state generated remedies such as restricting immigration, building a great deal of social housing and forcing developers to release land for building.

 Both the traditional Left and Right have been duped by globalisation. The Left initially welcomed globalisation as a dissolver of national sovereignty, but they are discovering by the day just how restrictive international treaties and membership of supra national groups can be. As things stand, through our membership of the EU and the World Trade Organisation treaties, no British government could introduce new socialist measures because they cannot nationalise companies, protect their own commerce and industry or even ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in Britain with British firms. A British government can have any economic system they like provided it is largely free trade, free enterprise.

The Right are suffering the same sickness with different symptoms. They find that they are no longer masters in their own house and  cannot  meaningfully appeal to traditional national interests because treaties make that impossible.

But there is a significant difference between the position of the two sides. The traditional Right have simply been usurped by neo-Liberals in blue clothes: the traditional Left have  been betrayed by a confusion in their ideology which has allowed their main political vehicles to be surreptitiously by the likes of Blair.

The left have historically objected to “free-trade” on the grounds that it destroys jobs and reduces wages. But what they (and especially the British Left) have rarely if ever done is walk upon the other two necessary planks in the anti-“free trade” platform: the maintenance of (1) national sovereignty and (2) a sense of national cohesion.  The consequence is that the Left has been and are still struggling with two competing and mutually exclusive ends: internationalism and the material improvement of the mass of the people.

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