Mr. Lewis was a civil rights icon. But he was also a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and he had strong views on trade. Indeed, it is because of his views on civil rights that he had such strong views on trade. As he said in 2015:
In a very few weeks, the world will recognize the anniversary of abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. A few years ago, I wrote all of my colleagues on the Committee, to remind them that the question of human rights and trade is not one which began in the 1970s or in the 1990s.
In 1807, this very Congress passed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves. Trade and labor, trade and human rights have always been linked; it is not something that is new. It is not an issue for another day, another Committee, or another time.
I have said before, and I will say it again, our trade policies are a reflection of our values. We must respect the dignity and worth of every person. What does it profit a great nation to gain trade and lose its soul?
As we continue to come to grips with structural economic racism, we have the chance to take a closer look at Mr. Lewis’ point about the linkage between trade and slavery. It is not just about trade in slave labor. It’s about trade and slave labor.
At the dawn of the creation of the United States, Alexander Hamilton used tariffs to promote manufacturing in the fledgling country. Under colonial mercantilism, the British Motherland had used the colonies for raw materials, but for little else. Hamilton felt that to be truly independent, the United States had to have its own industrial capacity.
The agricultural community, however, wanted free trade. They were export oriented. If the United States imposed tariffs to protect its industry, agricultural producers would potentially face retaliatory tariffs abroad. And American agricultural producers had a very distinct advantage that kept their costs low: slavery. The United States was guilty of the worst form of labor rights suppression imaginable. As Ambassador Don Johnson, who served in Congress with Mr. Lewis, explained in an extraordinary history of U.S. trade policy, this conflict between the protectionist North and the free-trade South, “fatally driven by the slavery issue, would eventually lead to the Civil War.”
The debate over free trade versus the strategic use of tariffs to develop – or preserve – industrial production isn’t something that emerged yesterday. It’s ingrained in our history.
Like so many of us who appreciate the theory of free trade, Thomas Jefferson originally opposed Hamilton’s approach. But as Jefferson examined the policies of American trading partners, he changed his mind and endorsed the use of tariffs.
As Mr. Lewis said, the link between U.S. trade policy and slavery isn’t just about history. It’s relevant today. The U.S. government has become the global champion of enforceable labor rights as a core component of trade agreements. This blog has pointed out many times that other countries don’t do it. Republican politicians in the United States are more progressive on this issue than trade negotiators in Europe, Canada, and other places we consider more “woke” than we are. My recent exchanges with Senator Cassidy illustrate this point once again.
It would be better if this were not a case of American exceptionalism.
The United States also includes labor rights in its programs for developing countries. Opponents of these rights sometimes argue that they represent neocolonialism. This argument makes no sense. How is securing labor rights for workers being exploited by arbitrage – in many cases arbitrage by Western companies — “neocolonial”? It’s actually just the opposite. Ensuring that we do not exploit developing countries through labor (and environmental) arbitrage also ensures that we don’t promote economic justice at home at the expense of economic justice abroad. What does it profit a great nation to gain trade and lose its soul?
We are struggling with economic and racial justice at home. But we are also struggling with economic and racial justice in Asia, and in Africa, and in Latin America. In trade, we so often think of these issues in terms of a North/South conflict. But it’s as much about conflicts between haves and have-nots within borders as about the haves and have-nots across borders.
Mr. Lewis was the conscience of Congress. If we want to honor him with deeds, not words, we must bend the moral arc of our economic policies, at home and abroad, toward justice.
July 18, 2020