I had an interesting encounter over the Thanksgiving holiday. I met a man who worked for a non-profit organization dedicated to the advocacy of equal rights for immigrants. He was also an enthusastic supporter of Barack Obama. I found the combination strange, so I asked him whether he felt Obama’s suggestions that NAFTA be renogitiated to conform to “fair trade” as opposed to “free trade” were inconsistent with his view that immigrants should receive better treatment. We didn’t get to carry the conversation very far forward before we were dragged away to the food which is probably just as well, because he didn’t seem to respond to my question very well. At first he seemed puzzled that anyone could see any relation between the two, and then began to argue that the two positions were entirely consistent since demanding that other countries match the United States’ labor and environmental standards would only improve the lot of everyone invovled. I did not expect to encounter such startling ignorance of economics in a Yale law grad, but there it was.
I don’t know why he worked to promote immigrants’ rights, but I assummed it was because he wished to ensure that everyone, and particularly the least-privileged among us, have the same opportunity to pursue happiness free from unwarranted obstructions. Immigrants are often at a tremendous disadvantage relative to their native-born peers, so it seems reasonable that someone interested in equality before the law would see a chance to make a meaningful difference by focusing their attention on that group. However, a genuine sense of compassion should extend equally to all men, both those resident in one’s home country and those residing elsewhere perhaps trying to join your community. Artificially raising the costs associated with employing workers leads to higher unemployment relative to the status quo ante. “Fair trade” is protectionism by any other name and ought to be roundly condemned by anyone seeking to improve the conditions of people living in regions without the wealth and resources to be able to afford to meet U.S. government standards (even if they happen to be living in the U.S.).
My encounter reminded me of what a truly incoherent political viewpoint American liberalism has become.