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Resolved: When in conflict, governments should value fair trade above free trade.

Trade, especially when it has gotten freer, has empirically tended to be one of the most beneficial economic processes in the past few millennia. But to skip the flowery review of history: free trade has been fantastic… but we already have a lot of free trade; do we really need more free trade? And where is it that free trade conflicts with “fair trade”? And what even is “fair trade”? And does the promotion/use of labels like “free trade” and “fair trade” actually help public policymaking? Is it possible that the main problem(s) with one or even both policies is the label and the related rhetoric that attaches itself to and hijacks the trade-policy policy trains? Or perhaps we “must” choose a side and stick with it, because the “other side” is going to pull too hard in the wrong direction? So many questions, such a small word limit!

Thankfully, Joshua Anumolu already did a good job introducing a bit of the 101/102 of the resolution, so I won’t focus on those things. In fact, this article will not focus much at all on the regular arguments for/against either policy. Instead, with this article I will be introducing some of the advanced issues in the overall trade policy debate, as well as providing some thoughts on resolutional interpretation.

I debated US-East Asian trade policy in Stoa (‘15-’16), and discovered a mild passion for trade policy. I kept up with and exhibited this passion through two years of college by writing research papers related to trade policy and also by taking a class on trade policy. In the past few years I’ve mulled over trade policy from numerous angles, including how the policies covered labels that are covered by this resolution, which is the first issue I’ll cover:

Labels suck…

Economics is a tough field, to say the least. If economic policy were a canvas, it would have a lot of chicken scratch and conflicting color mixtures—but most of which is (at least, ideally) being frequently updated and revised. To get a good painting (i.e. good economic policy), it’s crucial that the painters use careful, thoughtful brush strokes. Labellized ideologies like “free trade” and “fair trade,” on the other hand, can tend to devolve into the policy equivalent of an oversized paint roller that some 13 year-old periodically picks up and slathers over the work of economists, saying “everyone knows that blue is the best color.” Sometimes it’s true that the painters are using too much red and not enough blue, but even if that’s true (and it definitely isn’t always true just because the observers think so) the observers should just hire new professional painters (ones who don’t think paint rollers make for good brushes) rather than trying to do the painting themselves.

Undoubtedly, I’m being a bit imprecise with this analogy, but it’s meant to get the point across: broad labels oversimplify the complexity of economic policy. There are so many factors that one should consider when making economic policy: job friction, positive/negative externalities, human value systems and psychology, proportionality and dispersion of harms/benefits, the communication effects of policy, etc., and these factors must be evaluated beyond just “this fits with my ideology, so it’s probably true.” In sum, nuances don’t always neatly conform to either “free trade” or “fair trade.”

… but labels stick

The problem, however, is that labels stick (as they are meant to do). Labels aren’t inherently bad, but some politicians have politically weaponized these labels: they use the labels to galvanize segments of the population that have never read a single academic trade policy analysis into blindly supporting “one camp” or the other, as if the trade policy arena is a battleground for the blind rather than an area for academic investigation. The results can be “fair trade” which ends up being protectionism that isn’t “fair” (or sensical, such as our antidumping system) and/or “free trade” which might be beneficial for the educated who are better equipped to adjust to market changes but worse for people who are less educated and suddenly find themselves without a job—in addition to the potential suffering of foreign populations in cases of unregulated pollution, suppression of labor rights (e.g. right to organize, right to minimal privacy from employer, right to representation/justice in the face of contract deception/manipulation), etc. Unfortunately, for some actual trade economists (or, more commonly, educated trade commentators) it can feel like the only meaningful tool are paint rollers—that one must choose sides as the “fair/free” drumbeat gets louder—because nuance will inevitably be trodden over in favor of ideological simplicity.

All of this is to say: In a round, I would argue that a politician’s/government’s usage of phrases such as “free trade” and “fair trade” constitute a harm in itself which must be evaluated. For many of the reasons described in Joshua Anumolu’s article (in addition to the hundreds of articles you will inevitably come across in your research) and because I perceive that fair trade rhetoric has tended to be the far more damaging/limiting since, as at least one economist commented, it “gives ammunition” to protectionists, I support the “free trade” label if I have to choose. And I realize one may need to “labellize” in order to have a worthwhile effect on policy directions. But that is why I chose to create/adopt my own “label” back in East Asia trade policy year—a label which I still promote when given the option.

“Smart trade,” and how it is relevant here

“Smart trade” is a consequence-driven (as opposed to ideology-driven) approach that emphasizes academic/expert reasoning and data, as well as long-term credibility/reliability as opposed to political pandering, in order to produce maximally beneficial policy. It involves a mix of “free” and “fair” trade policies (i.e. some “smart trade” is “fair trade,” some is “free trade”), and it is committed to whatever works, including if that means short term sacrifice and/or hard bargaining (e.g. not unilaterally liberalizing) for the purpose of promoting beneficial agreements/policy. Although I do call it a label, what makes it different from the other “labels” is that “smart trade” doesn’t try to force ideology onto reality; it lets reality shape its conclusions.

Now, you might be thinking, “but we have to choose between free trade and fair trade, so this doesn’t help in the round.” However, there is a strategy here: I would argue that the main problems with fair trade are the labellized rhetoric and oversteps that can accompany it; (as I will discuss in the next section) the ideology itself is actually malleable enough to make good, ethical policy (including some free trade). Thus, as the affirmative I would argue that a government/politician should promote a “smart trade” label (and actual policy) on the whole. Then, in the cases where we have to choose between fair trade and free trade (i.e. “when in conflict,”) governments should cautiously and unceremoniously adopt fair trade policy. In fewer words: ditch the label and fix the policy.

Moving on…

I recognize that may seem a bit long-winded, it’s just important that debaters get a sense of the potential consequences of their rhetoric related to this topic, and on top of that what I described is an argument that I perceive could very much make or break a round between two equally well-researched and well-spoken debaters. Furthermore, whereas you can find plenty of sources that preach the values of one policy or the other, it’s not as common that people acknowledge the harm created by those labels. But now that I have covered that central issue, there are definitely some other issues I want to briefly cover/address.

What is fair trade?

That’s a great question, which I can’t truly “answer,” because there is no “one answer.” As Joshua Anumolu pointed out, there are a lot of potential definitions—and that a lot of free trade could be considered “fair trade.” Indeed, it is crucial to recognize that fair trade is not necessarily the opposite of free trade, at least to the extent that something like protectionism is basically the antithesis to free trade. Again, the problem really seems to depend on which label/brand of “fair” trade one chooses to adopt, because some interpretations have been used to justify shameless, harmful protectionism.

The affirmative will inevitably get a lot of strawmen thrown around by people who insist that “fairness” is/can only be defined by those in power, and therefore “fair trade” validates all kinds of protectionist practices. However, luckily—and in fact crucially—for the affirmative team, the lack of an official/accepted definition for “fair trade” means they get to define it how they want—within reason, of course. If I were debating as the affirmative, I would focus on what kinds of things can be considered almost objectively “fair,” then draw up a few key principles that define fair trade, perhaps including the following:

  • Governments’ subsidies should be limited strictly to occasions where they fix market failures and/or proportionately offset other government interventions (both of which are not very common, especially the latter of the two).
  • Intellectual property theft should be punished and prevented.
  • Clear externalities such as unregulated pollution should be discouraged and/or compensated by other governments.
  • Trade barriers should be reciprocally free/fair.
  • Basic rights of workers involved in production should be upheld by other governments: governments should not use force to coerce populations into production; they should not allow contract/property right infringement; they should not allow someone to be practically born into slavery (*cough* Banana Republics *cough*).
  • Resource exploitation and/or discrimination, such as the net destruction wrought in some places by policies such as colonialism (e.g. The DRC), ought to be acknowledged and accounted for.
  • Governments should prevent against contract manipulation and extreme violations on rights even when they are technically “consensual” (e.g. contracts which stipulate in fine print “employees wages are subject to unilateral change at the employers’ desire,” or that employees may not engage in normal religious practices, may not discuss wages or assemble, and are disproportionately indebted for workplace mistakes), but which in practice are hardly “consensual” because it relies on the exploitation of unorganized, uneducated, and desperate workers.

In trade which fails to meet these criteria, a “fair trade” policy response could include tariffs or similar trade restrictions. Especially in the cases of measurable externalities, these tariffs can be proportional and targeted.

That list is not exhaustive, nor is it necessary to include every single principle; their “fairness” becomes more debatable as it goes down the list. Nonetheless, the point should be clear: “fair trade” can apply just to things which are clearly “unfair.” Building off of this, an affirmative should clearly outline what does not fall under fair trade, which I would argue include the following:

  • Dumping. As plenty of economists will attest to, dumping is not inherently unfair. It certainly can be that the practices that sometimes accompany and fuel dumping, such as foreign government subsidization, are unfair, but at most dumping is just predatory/cutthroat, not “unfair.”
  • Low wages are not inherently unfair, at least in the sense of the market transaction (as opposed to whether the reality of global inequality is “fair”).
  • Low prices are definitely not unfair, especially when those prices truly are the result of comparative advantage.
  • Trade deficits are absolutely not inherently unfair; at most, they might be suggestive of debatably unfair practices such as currency manipulation or foreign protectionism/mercantilism, but this does not make them inherently unfair.



At least be thoughtful of the kind of brush that you use as you move forward. For decades, trade policy has been a battleground of protectionism vs. liberalization, a debate which has now formed around the labels “free trade” and “fair trade.” Yet, at least until recently, liberalization has unequivocally been “winning” the fight: tariff barriers have radically decreased in the past century, almost to the point where there is not that much left to comfortably liberalize. With this point in history forming the context/starting point for the resolution, it actually is up for debate whether more free trade ought to be pursued over what I’ve described as “true” “fair trade.” Personally, I have often resignedly stood on the “free trade” side when battles are waged, if only because I think the “fair trade” label is too easy to hijack (or that the hijacking causes comparatively much greater damage). However, I have identified one strategy that affirmatives certainly could explore: have a government (including its politicians):

  1. Ditch the hijacked form of “fair trade” rhetoric and policy;
  2. Adopt “smart trade” rhetoric (and policy, on average);
  3. In cases where there actually is conflict between free trade and “true” “fair trade” (i.e. not the old, protectionism-in-disguise version), go with fair trade (without explicitly calling for “fair trade,” as some politicians tend to do) because it appeals  to our basic sense of moral justice—even those of (non-crony) capitalism, which condemns violation of rights.

By reclaiming the practice of “fair trade” (and) by avoiding the politically-charged labelism (or more accurately, labelitis), an affirmative can avoid what is one of the most significant drawbacks of fair trade: the misuse and abuse. Obviously, affirmatives still have to do the normal research and legwork on basic arguments for fair trade vs. free trade, which this article hasn’t gone in much depth on, but it doesn’t take long to find that there are plenty of sources that loudly (and sometimes cogently) defend both types of policy.

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