Mexico and Free Trade -- The Ethical Dimension

By Rushworth Kidder
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 2, Number 1 (Fall 1991)
Issue theme: "Immigration and free trade with Mexico"

Ethical dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes. Large or small, however, they raise profound concerns about right and wrong at the heart of every individual moral struggle lie the questions, What kind of person am I, and what do I want to become?

That's true for nation-states, too. The Gulf War debate was about the role of the United States as world policeman and mediator. Now comes the debate over the United States as trading partner, embodied in the issue of a US-Mexico Free Trade Agreement (FTA) currently before Congress. These are both defining debates - points of inflection of the nation's moral curve - and they force us to ask what America is and what we want it to become.

So far, unfortunately, the FTA debate has been framed largely in economic terms. To its proponents, a successful agreement is right because it promises to create the world's largest trading bloc - stretching from the Yukon to the Yucatan, embracing 360 million Mexican, Canadian, and US consumers and developing an annual output of $6 trillion. To opponents, the FTA is not right because it threatens a loss of US jobs and the support of sweatshop wages and costly pollution in Mexico. Right, for both sides, means economically right.

..not shall we participate in the

international arena? but how shall we

participate? To ask to ask

an ethical question...

But there's a larger context here. Part of it is historical. Separated as we are by a world of water from other nations, wrote George Washington during his second term as president, if we are wise, we shall surely avoid being drawn into the labyrinth of their politics.... From that paean to isolationism to the drawbridge of protectionism is but a short step - or would be, were it not for an array of opposing arguments. Restrictions on trade, wrote John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, are indeed restraints; and all restraint, qua restraint, is an evil. Both these views have elements of rightness depending on which has been in favor, the United States has historically had greater or lesser enthusiasm for the idea of free trade.

This larger context also involves the future. Like it or not, the 21st century will transform the world into a global community. It's already happening when a nuclear explosion at Chernobyl poisons reindeer in Sweden, and when the desire to see the last episode of Dallas causes nomadic herdsmen in the Middle East to delay their annual migration for a week, can there be any doubt that President Washington's world of water is no longer even a moat? The question, then, is not Shall we participate in the international arena? but How shall we participate?

To ask that, in the spring of 1991, is to ask an ethical question what's the right thing to do in regard to the FTA? On that point, a quartet of ethical issues arises

1. Is the primary moral duty of a nation-state to defend its standards or to spread them? There are, after all, gross disparities between the haves and the have-nots the developed nations, with only 25 percent of the world's population, consume some 82 percent of its resources. And these nations have very high standards - of wages, of health, of workplace safety, of environmental protection. Should they open their borders, offering to share these standards with their impoverished neighbors? Or would that ravage the fabric of Western economies, rendering them incapable of producing the goods, services, and technologies that now help sustain Mexico and the other poorer nations? Here, metaphor helps. Should we model ourselves after airline flight attendants, who tell us in an emergency to don our own oxygen masks first, so we can then help our children? Or is our model the milkweed, which conquers entire fields only after it yields to the wind and spreads its seeds freely?

2. Will the FTA genuinely advance the case for global free trade or merely create another super-bloc? Given the European Community's expanded internal market, scheduled for completion in 1992, and the proposals for a similar bloc among the so-called Asian tigers, the question is not an idle one. If those blocs bare their protectionist teeth to scare off trade from other parts of the world, would it be ethical to retaliate by growing our own fangs? Or would that, in the end, make life even worse for the have-not nations excluded from everyone else's trading blocs? In such an environment, we may indeed prosper inside our FTA. But would it be right and fair to do so if that made poor nations even poorer, or if it produced short-term North American profits at the cost of long-term global instability?

3. Are we capable of enforcing the FTA, or will it be little more than a nicely drawn set of ignorable provisions? Writing in 1933 about the environment, naturalist Aldo Leopold noted that We have three possible controls legislation, self-interest, and ethics. That's also true today for international trade. Will legislation alone be effective, and can it be enforced with equal authority on both sides of the border? If it can't, will economic self-interest ensure that the best products reach the best markets? And if law and self-interest both collapse, is there an ethical underpinning that, in the name of rightness, will call legislators and traders to account?

4. What are the likely results if the FTA proposal is defeated? One argument holds that the United States will be forced, as an alternative, to become an even more vigorous multilateral partner, finding global markets others have overlooked - while Mexico finds a sharp incentive to cleanse itself of corruption, tighten its child-labor laws, control its air and water pollution, and generally freshen its appeal to U.S. markets. The other view is that both nations will stagnate - the one driven out of foreign markets by smugly high-priced union labor, the other driven to despair by grinding poverty - and that illegal immigrants will surge northward across the border.

Standards, fairness, enforcement, alternatives - the FTA debate raises a host of ethical issues. Reasonable thinkers may disagree on which side is right. One thing, however, is inarguable the outcome of the debate will both reflect and affect who we are and what we wish to be.

About the author

Rushworth Kidder reminds us that there are ethical as well as economic dimensions

to trade discussions. Mr. Kidder wrote for many years for The Christian Science Monitor

and now heads the Institute for Global Ethics, Box 563, Camden, ME 04843.

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