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Look Who Wants To Tinker With Market Forces


Economic Viewpoint

LOOK WHO WANTS TO TINKER WITH MARKET FORCES

Pat Buchanan, the most conservative candidate in the 1996 Presidential field, issued a startling Labor Day statement proposing regulation of foreign trade. Sounding to the left of House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Buchanan warned of the "stagnant wages of an alienated working class" and proposed to "insulate the wages of U.S. workers from downward pressure from foreign laborers who must work for $1 an hour or less."

Unlike his conservative colleagues who insist that markets can do no wrong, Buchanan recognizes that a market is anchored in a national system of laws, rights, and obligations, which defines a political community. Although there are (weak) international laws, there is no transnational sovereign polity and, hence, no meaningful global standards.

In the U.S., slave labor is illegal (though recent reports about Los Angeles garment workers suggest it isn't extinct). There is a right (often breached) to organize unions, to workplace health-and-safety protections, a minimum wage, bans on child labor, and other social "floors" absent in many countries.

To evade these rights and responsibilities, corporations need only relocate in a cheap-labor country. The free-trade dogma insists that trade always improves economic efficiency. But Buchanan and other skeptics note that the costs can sometimes outweigh the benefits by eroding the standards that make our society a decent place to live.

Buchanan would not ban trade. He would, rather, impose a "social tariff" on countries with shabby labor standards, so that their practices would not drag down ours. This would encourage low-wage countries to clean up their acts and would create a buffer to insulate American workers from those that refused. It would also dilute the economic advantage for U.S. companies that exploited cheap foreign labor.

CRASS COMMERCIALISM. It is breathtaking to see a conservative embrace a social tariff. But traditional, old-fashioned conservatives, such as the political philosopher Edmund Burke, also worried that market forces, taken to an extreme, would wipe out cherished tradition and social order. In Europe, Christian Democratic parties have long used government programs to shore up family economic security, in the name of traditional values.

We see the lingering conservative ambivalence about markets in the dismay at the violence purveyed by Hollywood, the soft porn of Calvin Klein's fashion ads, the promotion of teenage smoking by Joe Camel, and other assaults on decent values by crass commercialism. Market forces, apparently, can do wrong. When The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the very temple of market worship, ran a snide article dismissing the late Jerry Garcia as a "drugged-up knockoff of a social experiment that went sour," the Journal received numerous letters pointing out the contradiction. If millions of fans bought the Grateful Dead's records and went to the concerts, taunted one, then Garcia must be a great musician: "The market proved it. That is, if you believe in markets."

IDOLATRY. Recently, Mitt Romney, the entrepreneur and 1994 Massachusetts GOP Senate candidate, stood with President Clinton to decry the Republican attacks on AmeriCorps, Clinton's national service program. Romney, on the board of the City Year volunteer program, thinks service programs revive civic spirit. But among the conservative majority in Congress, market idolatry has reached the point where even government-sponsored programs that promote traditional values are under ideological assault by extremists.

Sometimes, regulations (such as labor standards) and government programs (such as AmeriCorps) can actually shore up old-fashioned virtues of hard work, discipline, and community, while market forces can undermine them. Unregulated trade with low-wage, low-standard countries makes fools out of America's diligent working poor. Buchanan observes: "It is mindless to enact health, safety, and environmental laws, wage laws, and family-leave laws, and then via NAFTA and GATT to invite the very companies Congress is regulating to move to Mexico or Asia."

Of course, in proposing social regulation of foreign trade, Buchanan is coy about whether he backs such regulation domestically. However, if he attacks the absence of social standards abroad, he ought to welcome their presence at home. For market forces, left to their own devices, produce intolerable extremes that undermine the domestic order that Buchanan prizes. Buchanan opposes free trade mainly as a nationalist. But if social regulation is good enough for a bunch of foreigners, isn't it also good for American workers?BY ROBERT KUTTNER


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