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More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound
Those who hail the virtues of trade without limits are this era's reactionaries
by Jack Beatty
December 24, 1997
The recent debate over granting the President "fast track" authority (to reach trade agreements that Congress can approve or disapprove but not amend) pitted labor unions, House Democrats, very conservative Republicans, and the environmental lobby against President Clinton, mainstream congressional Republicans led by Newt Gingrich, and the editorial boards of almost every major newspaper in the country. Those who think vibrant public debate is assured in America through the diversity of opinion expressed by our newspapers should read a sobering report on this chorus of editorial unanimity from the November/December issue of Extra!, the media-watchdog magazine sponsored by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
In "'Fast Track' 1, Democracy 0," Janine Jackson cites pro-fast track editorials in the following putatively diverse newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Christian Science Monitor, Houston Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, the Long Island Newsday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and the Baltimore Sun. The editorials branded the opponents of fast track "protectionists," while fast track's proponents stood for "new jobs and higher incomes" for Americans, to quote from Newsday. The tenor of the editorials was that reason and truth were on one side, prejudice and union campaign contributions on the other. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution insisted, speaking for the whole phalanx, that "couched in noble sentiments about poor treatment of workers in other countries or abuse of the environment," the concerns of worker advocates and citizen groups are "really just labor-union protectionism." Arguments opposing free trade, in other words, possess no independent intellectual or historical merit; they are masks hiding crude self-interest.
These editorials suggest the presence of what John Stuart Mill termed "the deep slumber of decided opinion." In the elite press, free trade has become an ideology, a fighting faith, not a hypothesis pending evidence. On one side, these editorials imply, we have progress; on the other, reaction. I want to argue through a historical analogy that in this case it is the editorialists who stand for reaction.
We are now undergoing the wrenching shift from a national to a global economy. At the end of the nineteenth century, and into the early decades of this one, America was undergoing a transformation from a local to a national economy. In the earlier case, there were two sides to the debate over the government's role in the transformation. On one side were liberal Republicans led by Theodore Roosevelt and reform Democrats led by Woodrow Wilson. They and other "Progressives" argued for political intervention -- laws to regulate hours and wages, to ban child labor in interstate commerce, to establish national standards of food quality, and to break up monopolies, among many others -- in the emerging national market. They established government departments such as the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate the new economy.
Those who opposed these measures did so in the name of laissez-faire. They were called the Old Guard, and they were the reactionaries of their time. The market, they held, should be left alone. Shackling it with regulation would rob it of vitality. Higher prices and fewer jobs would result. The Old Guard, it's true, stood for a high tariff on manufacturing goods -- protectionism -- but that was the received opinion of their time, as "free trade" is of ours. From the time of the Founding Fathers to the early twentieth century, tariff walls had incubated our economy, helping it to become the world's strongest. Back then, no one was foolish enough to champion free trade. It is the Old Guard's dogmatic resistance to intervention in the emerging national economy that yields my point of comparison.
Today's Old Guard are the defenders of free trade. They want no democratic interference in the global economy. In the long run, they say, everything will work out for the best -- for rich and poor nations alike -- if we just let the market alone. To write labor standards or environmental standards into trade agreements with other countries will rob the global economy of vitality, they say. Higher prices and fewer jobs will result.
Wrong about the effects of intervention in their day, the Old Guard are a cautionary example to the political descendants of William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge on the editorial boards of today's leading newspapers. President Clinton and his allies in Congress and in the corporate lobby lost on fast track this time (knowing it was going to be defeated, Clinton did not even allow fast track to come up for a vote). The Old Guard, however, has just begun to fight. With their monopoly over the machinery of the country's opinion, they have the ability both to promote and to stigmatize ideas. By the time they are through, "protectionist" may have the same aura as "pederast."
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.