On NAFTA and Unquestioned
November 17, 1993
In the SSU News of November 3, Economics Professor Adil Mouhammed
and his Economics 449 students advocated passage of the North American
Free Trade Agreement. Although I oppose NAFTA because it will lead to
increased corporate control of our already corporate-dominated economy
and because our society demonstrates little institutional concern for
people devastated by economic forces beyond their control, I am not writing
this to dispute the authors' specific economic predictions. Other economists
make different predictions, and some day we'll know who is correct.
Instead, I would like to direct attention to three of the article's underlying
theoretical points, which reflect an unsubstantiated, one-sided view of
human motivation and the origin of economic inequality.
First, the article claims that "poverty in America is an outcome of
incomplete education, protectionism, and the welfare system." On the
other hand, the article ignores the impact of racism, sexism, unequal
class power, and the inequitable nature of capitalism, which by design
must have many economic losers to support the relatively few winners.
Without taking these factors into account, poverty and inequality will
continue, NAFTA or no NAFTA.
Second, the article claims that "in a market economy such as ours,
rewards are determined by skills, education, and luck. Social justice
is the wrong concept to use in a market economy, because social actions
are not planned and not spontaneous. On the other hand, our legal system
will maintain justice whether NAFTA exists or not."
Here, the authors accurately point out that capitalism is not aimed at
social justice. However, they fail to consider that creating an economic
system that does seek social justice might be a worthwhile goal. At any
rate, relegating justice to the legal system is ill advised given the
law's historical tendency to support the unjust status quo rather than
to challenge it. Our society has become quite adept at providing the
appearance of both legal and economic justice without the substance.
And third, the article claims that "for those who have been left behind
in the global economy, their problems are related to the choice they have
made in selecting occupations that do not bring reasonable wages and salaries"
and that, since NAFTA will give people the incentive to make the right
choices, "if they elect to do so, they will become more productive and
will have the opportunity to make higher wages."
Blaming the victim is a long American tradition, but blaming laid-off
workers for failing to predict the vagaries of capitalist dislocation
is unnecessarily harsh. Millions of Americans who followed the advice
given to them by experts--go to school, get a job, work hard--found the
economy crashing down around them regardless of their "choices." It's
not their fault, and it's unfair to hold them accountable.
There may be some good reasons to support NAFTA, but unbounded enthusiasm
for the benefits of unregulated capitalism is unwarranted. Fight-to-the-death
economic competition between citizens and between nations brings advantages
to the winners, but an equitable economic system geared toward meeting
basic needs might be better for us all. If it is true, as the authors
say, that "America prospers on innovative ideas," perhaps we should consider
an economic system that seeks social justice. Now, that would be an innovative
idea worth adopting.