– November 6, 2001
In “The Collapse of British Power,” historian Corelli Barnett savages the men and dogmas that brought his nation down.
In 1914, he writes, Britons believed theirs was the most powerful, productive, self-sufficient nation on earth. But already the rot was deep, as a free-trade cancer had eaten away at its vitals:
British industry had … changed its character from an army of conquest, mobile, flexible and
bold, into a defensive army pegged out in fixed positions, passively trying to defend what it
had won in the past. The fire of creative purpose flickered low in the blackened grate of
the British industrial regions.
Nor was British agriculture less decrepit. It was the German submarine which reminded the
British government after 1914 that the price of cheap food from overseas under the policy
of free trade had been the ruin of British farms and the terrifying vulnerability of the British
population to starvation by blockade.
Britain never recovered from its 50-year addiction to free trade. Now, America has succumbed to the disease Teddy Roosevelt called the “pernicious” dogma of free trade. To see what it is doing to us, as the mandarins of this cargo cult meet in Doha, Qatar, look at the record.
From 1900 to 1970, America ran a trade surplus every year. Since 1970, the United States has run 30 straight trade deficits. Last year’s trade deficit in manufactures was $323 billion, the merchandise trade deficit $450 billion â€“ near 5 percent of the gross domestic product. No nation has sustained trade deficits like this without a collapse of its currency and an end of its supremacy.
As our economy sinks slowly beneath the waves, U.S. industry is already in Davy Jones’ locker. U.S. manufacturing has fallen for 12 months. A fourth of our industrial plant is idle. A million manufacturing jobs have vanished since the Florida recount. We are down to 17 million manufacturing jobs, the smallest share of the U.S. labor force in 150 years.
Consider our once-mighty steel and textile industries. Though the U.S. steel industry has invested $60 billion in 20 years in new plants and equipment, raised its productivity 174 percent and laid off 350,000 workers, 25 U.S. steel producers have had to file for bankruptcy since 1997.
Why? In a word, imports. Since 1991, steel imports have risen from 16 million tons to 38 million tons. Foreign steel is being dumped on us by nations we bailed out like Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and South Korea, and nations we have defended, like Japan. When the global economy revives, these regimes want their steel industry to be alive and ours to be dead. Meanwhile, the U.S. government mumbles its comforting mantra, “Mustn’t interfere with free trade.”
The U.S. textile industry has been even more devastated. In the three years before North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States lost 2,000 jobs in textiles and 33,000 in apparel. In the seven years since NAFTA, America has lost 227,000 jobs in textiles and 434,000 jobs in apparel.
“Who cares if those dead-end jobs go to Mexico?” is the mocking taunt of think-tank scribblers, whose upholstered chairs are paid for by global corporations, whose party line they faithfully parrot. Well, those 671,000 laid-off workers care. For the apparel jobs they lost paid 23 percent more, and the textile jobs 59 percent more than the retail sales jobs they and their wives now probably have.
What has free trade done for American workers? According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, zero: The U.S. real median wage is today the same as it was when Nixon resigned.
This does not bother The Economist magazine, founded in 1843 to promote free trade, that simpering parson at the assisted suicide of the British nation. “Displaced rich-country workers” who lose out from trade, says The Economist, “are plainly worse off than they were before … many, perhaps most, of those who find alternative work will be paid less than they were before.” Unfortunately, it is American workers, not Economist editors, who pay the price.
Barnett traces free trade’s roots to “liberalism,” a doctrine that “demolished the traditional concept of the nation-state as a collective organism, a community, and asserted instead the primacy of the individual. According to liberal thinking, a nation was no more than so many human atoms who happened to live under the same set of laws.”
This liberalism now enthralls the Republican Party and drives the agenda in Qatar. The delegates at Doha first feared anarchists, now they fear terrorists. One day, they will have more to fear from the patriots of the countries they are betraying.