Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Morality of Free Trade

I wonder if the IFA's Don Quixote stand on the WTO negotiations is their final showdown? The Irish Times carried a good piece yesterday by Alan Matthews arguing basically that Ireland's future economic wellbeing is more important than subsidies to Irish farmers. He's right of course. As I've argued before, the IFA's stance on agri-protectionism is a super-cynical exercise in feathering their own nest to the detriment of Irish consumers and third world farmers.

But the issue is about more than the benefits that will accrue to consumers and farmers (including Irish farmers willing to focus on what customers want rather than their next CAP subsidy). I see it as a moral issue: liberalising global trade in farm produce is a necessary step in ensuring that people living in countries with predominantly agricultural economies can join in the wealth and job creating process that is free trade and democratic capitalism. Necessary but not sufficient: for unless citizens in wealthy democracies such as Ireland mandate their representatives at the WTO negotiations to do what is right both economically and morally then the forces of protectionism will prevail - condemning the world's poor to a continuation of their predicament for decades to come.

Here's one perspective on the morality of free trade - this time from a Catholic perspective:
There is also a moral aspect to free trade that ... seems to be forgotten. Economic freedom and the right to free exchange come from man’s natural right of association and his responsibility to take care of himself and his family. Economic freedom as a core element of political freedom grew out of the tradition of liberty in the West. In Spain, the medieval theologians that formed the School of Salamanca argued this well before Adam Smith came along, insisting that free exchange was a natural right and it lay beyond the government’s role to prevent it.
Church leaders in Ireland might take the lead in facing down the IFA and truly become the voice of the oppressed that they regularly claim to be.


  1. All well and good, but it would be a mistake to allow agriculture in Ireland to atrophy. Oil ain't getting any cheaper, there will ultimately be a time where it will be more economically viable to produce food domestically than to bear the cost of importing it all. You've seen that farmers will happily switch to site farming if they cannot make sensible money from their land by other means. The government would need to also stand by their recent planning policy to prevent rampant muppetism.

  2. While I agree with the thrust of your arguement, I can't imagine a rural priest standing up in front of 100 farmers and their families on a sunday morning and telling them to fall on their swords for the sake of the "black babies"!

    On a second point there are alot of debates in the whole globalisation debate that effectively hinge on the cost of shipping goods around the world. I'm pretty sure that bulk shipping is really cheap but I've never seen any figures to back it up. If we know more about shipping costs and how the costs of oil impacts it then we can put to rest arguments like those that thriftcriminal has made here...

  3. There is more to it than just shipping costs. Agriculture in general is heavily dependant on the petrochemical industry, pesticides are (to my knowledge) all derived ultimately from oil, as is much of the fertiliser produced today (that which isn't manure). Much of the thrust of intensive farming is only possible because of oil. This has increased food production to a degree that higher populations can be supported, take it away and larger populations become a big problem.

  4. Well if efficient farming is what thriftcriminal is after then importing from Latin ameica is cleary the only way to go. Had some argentinian beef for the first time recently - wow!

  5. Agriculture has been around for about 12,000 years so I don't think it's about to atrophy any time soon. All those mouths to feed etc.

    We'd all of us be much better off in a world where farmers everywhere could produce whatever they want and sell it to anyone anywhere for whatever their customers are prepared to pay.

    This will be the best way to ensure that we adjust to new energy and climate realities, by empowering millions of farmers around the world to make the decisions themselves on the basis of available information, locally, nationally and globally.

    The wisdom of agri-crowds you might say ...


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