I have heard a goodly number of people lately using the term “free trade” and “capitalism” in ways that are non sequitur to me. My hypothesis is that they have learned some specialized tribal meaning, and given the audience I believe the likely culprit to be American-style right-libertarians, who mistakenly have taken to calling themselves “anarcho-capitalists,” which is an oxymoron that I will cover in another article. So, let us analyze “free trade” and its multiple meanings.

On the surface “free trade” seems to have a clear singular meaning, but I will give you some examples of how that is not the case. Now, I am not going to use dictionary definitions, but just my own knowledge base, given that I have a BA in political science, and an MA in international relations and diplomacy, my base of knowledge will suffice for a simple analysis of this subject.

Potential meanings of “free.” There are other meanings, but they are not relevant to free trade.  

  • Without cost (e.g. free hugs)
  • Without restriction (e.g. free access)
  • Without the presence of something (e.g. antibiotic-free meat)

So, when lay people use the term “free trade” they usually mean something like “trade without barriers to access or extra costs.” However, the problem here comes from the actual use and implementation in government policy, and international relations. If you look to any American trade agreement with a foreign nation, excepting a handful of exceptions (e.g. UK, EU, etc.), what these “free trade” deals do is force neoliberal domestic and international policies to the exclusive benefit of large and rich corporations. They strip workers’ rights, environmental protections, any semblance of fair or roughly equal trade terms, often are tied to loans from the IMF and World Bank, and allow the country to be punished economically for attempting to protect their workers, environment, and infrastructure (beyond transportation, electricity, and other things corporations like).

Hence, the problem in attempting to debate or discuss issues like “free trade” is two different definitions: the lay and the in-practice meaning. Given that the US has no trade agreements with nations it can “bully” or coerce that are fair, it does not make any sense to use the meaning that American-style right-libertarians try to make it mean.

In this same vein, I also have heard many of that niche also attempting to associate “free trade” in this meaning with capitalism, which is absurd. In capitalistic systems you want to have the most bargaining power, to get the best deal, and to use whatever legal means to get and keep that imbalance in power on one’s own side of the table (I am presuming some kind of lawful alignment, not chaotic evil here). First, why do people want to pretend capitalism invented trade, especially that it is somehow responsible for trade without barriers to access or additional costs? Let us go back in time a bit and look at this. Consider the Neolithic era, if one had something, they could trade it with anyone they could get to, no barriers or cost besides distance. Next, let us go to Medieval Europe, peasants did not have basically any rights, but they could use some portion of their time for their craft or trade, and if they wanted, they could trade or sell it. Under Mercantilism it is the same deal, and again, none of it was only under capitalism, most of it entirely informal, so why the rush to claim capitalism somehow created trade or made “markets” a thing? We had markets before, but they were not theoretical constructs, they were actual physical places where trade, sale, and purchasing occurred. So, sorry, but “free trade” simply does not mean what your argument suggests.

Happy to re-write this in an academic style with citations, if someone pays me to.

I have heard a goodly number of people lately using the term “free trade” and “capitalism” in ways that are non sequitur to me. My hypothesis is that they have learned some specialized tribal meaning, and given the audience I believe the likely culprit to be American-style right-libertarians, who mistakenly have taken to calling themselves “anarcho-capitalists,” which is an oxymoron that I will cover in another article. So, let us analyze “free trade” and its multiple meanings.

On the surface “free trade” seems to have a clear singular meaning, but I will give you some examples of how that is not the case. Now, I am not going to use dictionary definitions, but just my own knowledge base, given that I have a BA in political science, and an MA in international relations and diplomacy, my base of knowledge will suffice for a simple analysis of this subject.

Potential meanings of “free.” There are other meanings, but they are not relevant to free trade.  

  • Without cost (e.g. free hugs)
  • Without restriction (e.g. free access)
  • Without the presence of something (e.g. antibiotic-free meat)

So, when lay people use the term “free trade” they usually mean something like “trade without barriers to access or extra costs.” However, the problem here comes from the actual use and implementation in government policy, and international relations. If you look to any American trade agreement with a foreign nation, excepting a handful of exceptions (e.g. UK, EU, etc), what these “free trade” deals do is force neoliberal domestic and international policies to the exclusive benefit of large and rich corporations. They strip workers’ rights, environmental protections, any semblance of fair or roughly equal trade terms, often are tied to loans from the IMF and World Bank, and allow the country to be punished economically for attempting to protect their workers, environment, and infrastructure (beyond transportation, electricity, and other things corporations like).

Hence, the problem in attempting to debate or discuss issues like “free trade” is two different definitions: the lay and the in-practice meaning. Given that the US has no trade agreements with nations it can “bully” or coerce that are fair, it doesn’t make any sense to use the meaning that American-style right-libertarians try to make it mean.

In this same vein, I also have heard many of that niche also attempting to associate “free trade” in this meaning with capitalism, which is absurd. In capitalistic systems you want to have the most bargaining power, to get the best deal, and to use whatever legal means to get and keep that imbalance in power on one’s own side of the table (I presuming some kind of lawful alignment, not chaotic evil here). First, why do people who want to pretend capitalism invented trade, especially that it is somehow responsible for trade without barriers to access or additional costs? Let us go back in time a bit and look at this. Consider the Neolithic era, if one had something, they could trade it with anyone they could get to, no barriers or cost besides distance. Next, lets go to Medieval Europe, peasants didn’t have basically any rights, but they could use some portion of their time for their craft or trade, and if they wanted, they could trade or sell it. Under Mercantilism it is the same deal, and again, none of it was only under capitalism, most of it entirely informal, so why the rush to claim capitalism somehow created trade or made “markets” a thing? We had markets before, but they weren’t theoretical constructs, they were actual physical places where trade, sale, and purchasing occurred. So, sorry, but “free trade” simply does not mean what your argument suggests.

Happy to re-write this in an academic style with citations, if someone pays me to.