"Free" Trade? Fraud Alert

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"Free" Trade? Fraud Alert

The deceptive branding behind corporatists' preference for the term "free trade" over simply "trade."

(Photo: Jim Winstead/flickr/cc)

It is rare these days to hear the words "market" and "trade" without the word "free" attached—especially on corporate media. I even hear colleagues who are pursuing a more localized economy use these terms without realizing that by so doing they are subtly and unintentionally promoting a political agenda they oppose.

Words have power, and corporate spin doctors choose them carefully to develop positive emotional associations with their agenda.

The corporatist website Investopedia.com explains what is meant by a free market: "A completely free market is an idealized form of a market economy where buyers and sellers are allowed to transact freely (i.e., buy/sell/trade) based on a mutual agreement on price without state intervention in the form of taxes, subsidies, or regulation." Thus, the term "free market" joins two positive words—freedom and markets—and associates them with the corporatists' ideal of freedom for corporations to maximize short-term profits free from public oversight, taxes, or responsibility for public consequences.

For me, the term "market" evokes the image of a local Saturday morning farmers market like the one where I go to buy fresh produce from my farmer neighbors. Such markets fit perfectly the dictionary definition of a market as "an open place or a covered building where buyers and sellers convene for the sale of goods; a marketplace." These markets feature life-sustaining person-to-person exchange, often while enjoying each other's company and the offerings of food vendors and musicians. These are living markets organized by the people who use them. Most of us love them—and properly so.

The many community markets I have visited around the world are beautiful celebrations of local life and culture, much like street parties. Our Saturday morning farmers market on Bainbridge Island is tiny by comparison with many I've visited. Even so, it draws a vibrant crowd and is an important contributor to building the relationships of trust and caring essential to healthy community function. It is easy to buy into the idea that such markets should be "free" from the heavy hand of government—though, in fact, even these markets have and could not long function without rules, including rules that exclude non-local businesses.

The "free market" of the corporatist ideal is the polar opposite to such community-nourishing living markets. The corporatists' free market is populated and organized by transnational corporations that spurn attachments to people, place, and community. Of course, corporations employ people, but their primary relationship is not to each other. It is to the corporation. And that relationship preempts the direct relationship they might otherwise enjoy with one another and the place they call home.

There is a similar deceptive branding at work in the corporatists' preference for the term "free trade" over simply "trade." For most of us, trade and freedom are both good. "Free trade" connects these associations with the corporatist agenda of trade unconstrained by national boundaries and interests. These set up a positive association with international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that are routinely referred to as "free trade" agreements. In fact, they are not about freedom and only indirectly about trade. Filled with thousands of pages of detailed rules, their primary purpose is to strip countries of control of their own borders and transfer that control to global corporations.

Perhaps the most striking "free market" contradiction is that the corporatist neoliberal agenda supports corporate mergers and acquisitions that build concentrations of monopoly power and reduce the market competition that is normally assumed to be a defining feature of a market.

So the next time you hear the term "free market" or "free trade," treat that as a fraud alert. Ask yourself, what are those warm-sounding words trying to sell? And remember, a living Earth economy features living markets, not the "free market," and it engages in fair trade, not "free trade."

David Korten

Dr. David Korten (livingeconomiesforum.org) is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a member of the Club of Rome. He holds MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

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