The Free Trade Debate That Isn't
The Free Trade Debate That Isn't

The Free Trade Debate That Isn't

October 1 st 1988

The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is now a source of bitter political controversy in Canada and is at the centre of the federal election campaign. John Turner of the Liberal party and Ed Broadbent of the New Democratic Party vie with each other in denouncing the agreement and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government. Those who are eager to understand the pros and cons of this agreement should keep a few things in mind in trying to cut through the fog of contradictory claims and confusion surrounding the FTA. (My bias is to support it, though it is not perfect and some companies and workers may be adversely affected.)

Many of the critics are engaging in rhetorical overkill. It is one thing to be opposed to the agreement on the basis of a careful and knowledgeable evaluation of the actual contents of this agreement. It is a complex and wide-ranging document; there is room for honest disagreement and differences of opinion. But it's quite another thing to do what its most vocal critics are now doing. They include spokesmen for the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Canadian Labour Congress, the so-called cultural establishment, certain churches and everyone to the political/ideological left of this amalgam. These critics argue that Canadian culture will be destroyed, that Canada will lose control over its own social, economic and political programs because the Canadian government has "sold out" to the Americans, and that all who favour this agreement are committed to a money-grabbing, market-dominated, and anti-people ideology.

Irresponsible charges and predictions abound. For example, Shirley Carr, president of the Canadian Labour Congress has said: "At the Canadian Labour Congress the Mulroney trade deal is looked on as nothing, less than a corporate blueprint to plunder a nation's treasure house and snatch away the soul of its people" (If You Love This Country, Laurier LaPierre, ed., p. 87). Everyone ought to suspect such sweeping denunciations.

The charges about the sellout of Canadian culture, resources, and social programs such as medicare, unemployment insurance and regional development programs, are simply not true. The FTA is a contract about commercial trade between two countries that leaves out many details of Canadian life and policies. In all likelihood, Canada will face serious difficulties with many of its programs in the future for a number of reasons in any case (see here). To argue that the FTA will destroy Canada and reduce it to an impoverished satellite of the U.S. is a form of demagoguery. A clear example of this is the recurrent claim that the Americans will be able to force us to sell them our water. The truth is that Canada is not forced to sell anything to the Americans except that which we voluntarily undertake to do. Once we do make such a decision, there will be all kinds of contractual conditions and requirements, as with any commercial transaction. We should therefore indeed be prudent in our long-term commitments regarding the sale of exhaustible resources.

The vehemence of the accusations by Shirley Carr and other likeminded critics can be attributed to their view of the state. The Free Trade Agreement leaves many decisions to individuals and companies in the private sphere. If you believe that the state is really the appropriate institution for the regulation of commerce and economy, then you will not like the FTA. In that sense, the New Democratic Party and all those to the left of it are quite consistent in opposing this agreement. But it does not necessarily provide them with infallible insight or morally superior motivations.

"God's Special Interest Group"

Of special interest to Christians is the opposition to the FTA by a number of social activist churches organized in an inter-church coalition called GATT-Fly. It is hard to find any original idea or insight about economic life and the regulation of international trade in GATT-Fly's literature. Instead, it is filled with the same arguments as those used by the NDP, the Canadian Labour Congress and the cultural establishment. The only additional component contributed by the ecclesiastical critics is their status as religious leaders and as moral teachers. But how do they use these unique qualifications in the free trade agreement discussion? It turns out that they are strong in their denunciation of "capitalism" and the "market ideology." When carefully examined, however, their alternatives amount to a withdrawal into self-reliant, small-scale and labour-intensive employment geared to the fulfilment of simple and essential needs. But such advice amounts to turning one's back on the modern world and seeking refuge on an island.

At the same time, GATT-Fly favours planning and an interventionist state. Consider, for example, the following advice in a piece against the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement:

Controlling and directing self-reliant development is not a matter of individual enterprises only. Economic planning for the entire community is necessary as well, for the nation and for the communities down to the township and village level. If such planning is to be effective it must be democratic. In material terms, perhaps the most important long-term role of government in the struggle for self-reliance is to organize economic planning and to coordinate plan implementations. Of course, plans must also be flexible and subject to modification in light of experience. (GATT-Fly, "Building Self-Reliance: The Alternative to Free Trade", Canadian Dimension, September 1987, p.31)

How central planning, and therefore an interventionist role by government, can be reconciled with local control and self-reliance is a puzzle that GATT-Fly merrily skips over. But government planning for self-reliance and local control is like planning for freedom—a contradiction in terms. The central planners in Moscow, after a seven-decade long search for combining local initiative (or self-reliance) and central planning have reluctantly admitted that their efforts have been a colossal blunder and waste. The Canadian churches, organized in GATT-Fly, still haven't understood this elementary lesson about human nature and true freedom. That is perhaps the reason why their views are warmly applauded by the editors of Canadian Dimension, a well-known Canadian mouthpiece for Marxist propaganda. GATT-Fly is no help in learning the truth about economic matters, including the details and possible consequences of the Free Trade Agreement.

Richard John Neuhaus's criticism of religious organizations that pretend to speak for God, made in the American context, apply equally to the Canadian scene:

Religious organizations are special interest groups of a sort, although they do not like to think of themselves that way. They like to think that they transcend the special interests and approach these matters "wholistically." They look at things from the big perspective, even from God's perspective. Action groups and church-and-society offices can be useful instruments that simplify and clarify. They more commonly become instruments that simplify and distort. They more commonly succumb to the temptation to think of themselves as God's special interest groups. All those other groups are advocating their agendas, whereas we're pressing God's agenda—or so some Christians are inclined to think. Come an election, God's got his favorites, and we're here to tell the godly who they are. In this way of thinking, dangerous simplification locks arms with sanctimonious hubris, to the grievous damage of both authentic religion and democratic discourse. (The Religion & Society Report, October 1988, p.2).

It's too bad that those who are called to provide spiritual leadership merely add their voices to those who appear to be motivated by not much more than a muddle of anti-Americanism, utopian statism, and a sense of moral superiority. They exacerbate confusion and antagonism in a situation that obviously cries out for wisdom and moderation.

Harry Antonides
Harry Antonides

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.


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