Two Cheers For GATT

Policy Backgrounders | Trade

No. 135
Friday, November 25, 1994
by James Bovard

U.S. Citizens vs. the U.S. Government

In the 1850s, Southern slaveowners were outraged at Northerners who demanded limits on a master's right to flog his slaves. Some Southerners claimed that such a law would be a gross violation of the slaveowner's natural sovereignty. Today, protectionists are outraged that the proposed World Trade Organization could effectively limit politicians' power to exploit consumers. Once again, sovereignty is invoked to perpetuate abusive powers that never should have existed in a free society.

Listening to complaints about the GATT, one would think that U.S. trade policy is the rational creation of bureaucratic sages and benevolent statesmen. Instead, trade policy is the precarious result of countless bad decisions made on Capitol Hill.

Congress has tended to view "national sovereignty" as an expression of its right to restrict Americans' freedom. Representative Helen Delich Bentley (R-MD), who displayed her trade acumen by sledge-hammering a Japanese TV on the steps of the Capitol in 1987, recently wailed: "Under the new GATT, Congress will have limited power over trade. ...We cannot allow this to happen."38 Thus, because the WTO could potentially strike down protectionist U.S. trade laws, the WTO is a violation of national sovereignty. Similarly, columnist Patrick Buchanan warned, "We give up our freedom - to faceless foreign bureaucrats who will assume authority over America's commerce that the Founding Fathers gave exclusively to the Congress of the United States."39

"The United States was born as a low-tariff nation."

But the Founding Fathers never intended to give the Congress dictatorial power over what American citizens could buy. In fact, restrictive trade policies were a major cause of the American Revolution. In 1750, Britain prohibited Americans from erecting any mill for rolling or slitting iron; William Pitt exclaimed, "It is forbidden to make even a nail for a horseshoe." The Declaration of Independence denounced King George for "cutting off our trade with all parts of the world."

The United States was born as a low-tariff nation. After 1816, when Congress began raising tariffs, citizen groups denounced the government for violating the basic trust of the U.S. Constitution. For instance, on February 25, 1828, the citizens of Newberry, S.C., denounced high tariffs, petitioning Congress with these words: "The species of legislation of which we complain is an infringement of the federal pact. It violates the eternal principles of justice by robbing one to enrich another. We observe with pain that the demands of the manufacturers are never ending. We are treated as colonies."40 The high-tariff policies of the early 1800s helped to sow the seeds for a Civil War that left over half a million Americans dead.

Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), the presumptive chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is working to delay consideration of the GATT. But it is worthwhile to examine Helms' own philosophy on trade. In 1990, Helms complained that U.S. textile policy "gives our market to foreigners."41 Helms apparently believes that the U.S. Congress should have the right and power to give the market to whomever it chooses. To talk of "giving" the market is, in reality, to talk of giving the dollars of anyone who must depend on that market. Politicians who allocate market share are treating consumers as serfs.

Protectionist politicians complaining about the effects of GATT on national sovereignty have as much credibility as muggers complaining about too many street lights. Most trade legislation is based on the idea that a handful of people who are members of Congress have a right to tax or prohibit the purchases of 250 million Americans. Did the 90,000 people in eastern Ohio who voted for the lesser of two evils on a rainy November day know that their elected official would assume the right to raise U.S. oil prices by 40 percent, mangle international textile trade and ban peanut butter imports?

Currently, members of Congress can restrict Americans' freedom to buy and sell from 96 percent of the world's population. Trade barriers come down to a question of political legitimacy. What gives one person a right to arbitrarily and forcibly reduce another's living standard? Should election to office give the elected the right to dictate other people's food, clothing and cars?

To argue that an agreement that lowers trade barriers around the world is a step towards One World Government misses the key point: the GATT will reduce the power of governments over their citizens around the world. Anything that tends to decrease politicians' arbitrary power over trade will tend to increase individual freedom. The GATT shifts sovereignty from the federal government not to a world government but to individuals, allowing each of us more sovereignty over the paychecks and dollars, yen, D-Marks or zloties in our pockets.

Read Article as PDF