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Liberalism's moral crisis on trade

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By Matt Miller
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Here's my question for American progressives: If you're for the little guy, are you just for American little guys? Or are you for poor underdogs even if they happen to have been born in India or China?

That's the deep liberal dilemma lurking beneath the trade wars now hitting the headlines. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this week brings word that Americans of all incomes, ages and parties are souring on free trade, believing it hurts the United States. This sentiment explains the rare bipartisan House vote last week to authorize potential action against China if its leaders don't stop manipulating their currency.

Venting against foreigners when times are hard is only natural, especially when China is in fact guilty as charged. But the question that liberals sidestep for now is what their posture will be toward China and India when times are again good -- and when these nations' economic "crimes" aren't bad behavior but merely a desire to get richer.

The mother of all inconvenient truths is this: Global capitalism's ability to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China, India and other developing countries comes partly at the expense of tens of millions of workers in wealthy nations. This awful, inexorable fact will soon pose an enormous moral and intellectual challenge for the American left.

To understand why, ask liberal trade foes how they square their hopes for the millions of workers striving to improve their lives here in America with a defensible moral stance toward the billions beyond our borders who seek better lives themselves -- some of whom want to come here, and nearly all of whom want to trade with us in ways that may put American jobs or earnings at risk.

The usual answer from the left is that we need to "lift the bottom" by raising wages and workplace norms overseas. There's no question this is crucial. Abuses that leave U.S. workers competing against exploited prisoners or children can't be tolerated.

That's where liberals usually leave the matter. But there's a further point they won't confront: Even if liberals' dream reforms are enacted, firms in less developed countries would still have lower costs that American firms and workers can't match. If you're a U.S. union chief or elected official whose constituents are hurt by this reality, your protectionism follows almost by definition.

But Americans not directly touched by this threat have the luxury to ask a different question: Why is it "liberal" or "progressive" to stop poor workers abroad from using the one competitive advantage they have to rise?

Once you start thinking along these lines, it's a short step to further heresies. Seen in this light, for example, big business may turn out to be a more "progressive" global force than American labor or government in the next few decades. Why? Because corporate America is generally the strongest voice for the reciprocal free trade and access to markets that poor nations need to thrive.

You rarely hear these notions discussed in the media, because they contradict the archetypal "liberals care about poor people, business doesn't" premise that shapes coverage. But 21st-century realities have a funny way of rendering old angles of vision obsolete.

For connoisseurs of psychic distress among liberals, all this is a preview. The rethinking of trade's benefits and burdens will take time to unfold. But the trade debate will bring special agony for progressives who see themselves as fighting liberals at home and as global humanists abroad. We're at a hinge in history when it's no longer possible to pretend there's no tension between the two.

Whose side are liberals on? The American people? Or people?

From the point of view of a benevolent deity, or a plain old world citizen, the climb of poor nations from poverty is a fantastic thing. But no matter how many Pell grants, preschools or pep talks politicians peddle, this development almost surely means a tough few decades for millions of American families, as our economy adjusts to the end of unrivaled American supremacy.

None of this means the end of the good life in America. But it probably means time is running out on the lax or insular or politically dysfunctional life we've been leading as we've coasted on top.

Before long these new economic forces will compel just about everyone to change their minds about just about everything. On trade, progressive self-perceptions are so ingrained that most liberals don't see this crisis coming. But it is. And it will sting.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com.


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