Free Speech and Free Trade

by Don Boudreaux on October 11, 2019

in Myths and Fallacies, Trade

Recently, the conservative Oren Cass tweeted his opinion that not only is free trade inconsistent with free markets (!), but also that free trade is inconsistent with free speech. This latter claim comes in response to the National Basketball Association’s removal of a tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets – a tweet in support of the pro-freedom protestors in Hong Kong.

I’m not here to express an opinion one way or any other about the NBA’s decision, presumably made in order to dissuade the tyrants in Beijing from obstructing the access of Chinese people to telecasts of NBA games (which are popular in China). I do, however, fully agree that the tyrants in Beijing have no ethical business blocking their subjects’ access to NBA games (or to any other programming, for that matter). Such threats by the Beijing tyrants are despicable.

But let’s get this much straight: the actions of the Beijing tyrants and the response of the private American business called the NBA in no way suggest, much less imply, that free trade is incompatible with free speech.

Every government imposes and enforces arbitrary and capricious diktats that reduce individuals’ freedom and threaten their dignity. And while some governments, including the beast in Beijing, impose more such inexcusable diktats than do others, this reality about the state isn’t changing anytime soon.

Given this reality about the state, the best that any (relatively) ‘good’ state can do on the trade front is to avoid further restricting its own citizens’ freedoms and then excusing such restrictions by observing that other governments restrict their citizens’ freedoms. In particular here, the U.S. government should not restrict Americans’ freedom to trade with people in China. (I’m willing to consider narrow exceptions based on genuine national-security concerns – which are not in play in this brouhaha.) The NBA should be left free to choose the extent to which it bows to pressure from the beast in Beijing in order to secure its market position in China.

I suspect that Cass would reply that such freedom of trade means that the NBA’s freedom of speech is curtailed. But this reply ignores economists’ foundational question: As compared to what?

The actions of the beast in Beijing do nothing to reduce freedom of speech within the United States or the freedom of speech of the NBA. The NBA and its personnel are no less free here at home to express themselves than they would be had they gotten no push-back on their pro-Hong-Kong-protestors speech from the beast in Beijing. The NBA is now free to choose whether or not to do business in China. As is true for all businesses in all countries, a decision to do business requires obedience to governments’ diktats, from the justified to the vile.

If the NBA chooses to do business in China, it does so with the recognition that it, over there, doesn’t have the same freedom of expression that it has in the United States. It is difficult to see how the NBA’s freedom of speech is diminished if it chooses nevertheless to do business there.

Suppose that the NBA was until today prevented by the U.S. government from doing business in China, but that the U.S. government today changes its policy and begins to respect the NBA’s freedom to choose whether or not to do business over there. The beast in Beijing then welcomes the NBA but only if it agrees to the beast’s censorious policies. In this example, has the U.S. government’s liberalization of trade with China diminished the NBA’s freedom of speech? I do not see that it has. Indeed, the freeing of trade in this example, while it hasn’t enhanced the NBA’s freedom of speech, has enlarged the NBA’s freedom overall: the NBA is now more free than it was yesterday to do business in China, without its freedom of speech reduced.

If – as Cass presumably wants – the U.S. government were to respond to Beijing’s censorious actions by further restricting Americans’ (including the NBA’s) freedom to trade with the Chinese, it would simply add one more unjust diktat to the pile of such diktats already in place. Freedom would be further reduced, not enhanced.

…..

It is, I concede, imaginable that credible U.S. government threats to restrict Americans’ freedom to trade with the Chinese people would pressure the beast in Beijing to become less censorious. Perhaps this possibility is what Cass means when he asserts that free trade is incompatible with free speech.

But this possibility is far too capacious, for it implies that free trade is incompatible with any conceivable good that one’s imagination might reveal as being achieved through threats of protective tariffs. Cass might, for example, assert that free trade is incompatible with foreign-governments’ architectural policies: if we in the U.S. disapprove of the French government’s choice of how to rebuild the Notre Dame cathedral, we can threaten to impose tariffs on French wine and, conceivably, thereby pressure the French government to adopt a design more to our liking. Or, somewhat more realistically, if we disapprove of the level of government-engineered income redistribution in Sweden, we can threaten tariffs on our imports from Sweden in order to pressure the government there to adopt less-redistributive policies.

In general, a policy of free trade is indeed inconsistent with the wish to use the threat of tariffs at home to pressure foreign governments into changing their policies, whatever these might be. So, too, by the way, is a policy of peace toward peaceful foreign countries inconsistent with the wish to use threats of military attacks to pressure foreign governments into changing their policies.

A policy of free trade both materially enriches the people of the home country and makes them more free than they would be absent such a policy. Nothing about a policy of free trade is inconsistent with free speech or, indeed, with any other freedom.

……

Here’s James Pethokoukis on the same subject. A slice:

Yet at some point, China’s oppressive actions may force some hard moral choices on American firms and cultural icons. Does Taylor Swift have to play Shanghai? Does Marvel need a red–carpet film premiere there? If Hong Kong really takes a bad turn, for instance, should the US send a team to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing? Meanwhile, America must work even harder to globally demonstrate the values of liberal, rules–based democracy and market-driven capitalism.

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