Politics or Liberty?

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The foes of China continue to insist that trade with China is trade with some amorphous evil machine that magically transforms imported goods into nuclear weapons, tanks and other implements of destruction. Chinese people, apparently, do not ever use these imported goods unless they are slaves who labor inside these magical factories that turn wheat into hand grenades.

On the other side of this peculiar equation is the American government that engages in the horribly despotic practice of actually allowing Americans the freedom to peacefully engage in trade with that ferocious Chinese magical trade machine.

To China’s enemies, trade is a one-way street where goods flow out to China and only the scourge of war can come in return.

Apparently dismissive of the above scenario, President Bush has recommended that Congress extend normal trade relations with China for another year. This has enraged those who believe that the politics of revenge should take precedence over trade. The President’s administration is appreciative of the benefits of peaceful exchange between two nations. Those who oppose trade with China support a truncation of liberty, choice, and wealth.

To oppose trade with China is to oppose better American access to more abundant and more affordable goods. The greatest beneficiaries of this exchange are not only ordinary people looking for more affordable alternatives, but entrepreneurs as well. Every dime that is freed up thanks to more affordable imported goods is a dime freed up to expand a growing business, and thus expand capital, and the labor force. Cheaper and more accessible capital can only lead to a greater demand for labor, while a greater demand leads to higher wages.

To illustrate this point, a brief case study may be helpful: Twenty years ago, a small businessman named Jake Jabs started up a small furniture company in Colorado. Jabs soon found that he could import low-cost furniture parts from China, assemble the parts in his plant, and sell the furniture at a price far less than any other distributor in the region. Today, American Furniture Warehouse has expanded to numerous Western states, employs thousands of people, and makes furniture available to countless people who could not afford much furniture were it not for his discount prices.

It is entrepreneurs like Jabs who are now being denounced for allegedly supporting the propping up of a Communist regime. Thanks to ever growing trade with China, Jabs’ furniture company and his labor force continue to expand. Should this economic growth be stifled because some disapprove of free trade? Do the opponents of free trade want to make criminals of countless entrepreneurs for desiring a continued benefit from trade with China? The answer appears to be yes.

To abridge trade with China is to abridge American liberty. It is the worst kind of Cold War syndrome where so-called lovers of freedom propose to protect freedom by moving ever closer to the state of affairs they claim to abhor. While China continues to open its markets to more and more American goods, China’s enemies continue to call for massive government interference in the free market. In an argument like this, nothing more than ignorance or hypocrisy can be at work. So China still holds an American spy plane? Should the American entrepreneur be crippled because of it?

This is a crucial turning point in American foreign policy. The choice must be made whether to destroy liberty for the sake of politics, or to ignore politics for the sake of liberty. The dictates of a classical liberal tradition instruct us to choose the latter. If the call for retribution and moralism is allowed to snuff out the demands of American entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and liberty, there is something terribly wrong with our vision of what America stands for.

June 5, 2001

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.

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