|Have you ever thought about what a free world would look like? What
a world would look like in which men were free to trade with whomever they
wanted and wherever they wanted? What a world would look like in which
men could travel and live wherever they found it most advantageous and
pleasurable? What a world would look like in which anyone could spend their
money or invest their savings in any part of the globe in which it seemed
most profitable and beneficial to them? A world in which there were neither
immigration restrictions nor emigration barriers? A world in which goods
could move freely from one country to another with neither tariffs nor
quotas on the amounts that could enter or exit a country? A world in which
individuals could trade and contract in any form of money they found most
profitable, with neither currency nor financial constraints?
Almost none of us presently alive have ever known such a world, but it did exist once, and not that long ago. Indeed, it was the type of world that encompassed a sizable part of the globe before the First World War. A picture of it was given by the famous English economist John Maynard Keynes in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919):
Beyond this, the classical liberals sometimes argued with each other over whether there were some other duties for the state to perform. But their basic premise was that practically all other matters were best left to the voluntary efforts of the free individuals of the society. If a proposal was made for the state to undertake more than these limited tasks, the burden of proof was upon the advocate of intervention to demonstrate that some shortcoming in the natural working of the market economy and any government regulation or interference would not, in fact, make worse the particular problem the intervener hoped to cure through the use of state power.
From the middle decades of the 19th century until the beginning of the First World War in 1914, most of the countries of Europe and North America predominantly followed the path of economic liberty. And, in practice, economic liberty meant a mostly unregulated market at home and free trade and free immigration in international affairs. While far from being a perfect world, never had the world been more depoliticized. While wars still occasionally occurred, and while politics still sometimes crept into economic relationships among the citizens of different countries, these occurrences were limited and minimized precisely because it was not the duty of the state to concern itself with the outcomes of the market, but merely to enforce the legal “rules of the game” under which individuals peacefully traded and freely exchanged with one another.
With most of the countries of Europe and North America following the same classical-liberal rules of the game, the world, for the most part, became a cosmopolitan market and civil society. Nationalist prejudices, rivalries, and conflicts were restrained and, to a great extent, eliminated. The market was the entire globe, and one’s trading partners and potential customers were all the other citizens of this free-trade world.
The free market tends to be both color-blind and nationality-blind. It treats all participants equally. As a customer, the market only asks, is the individual offering the best price to the seller? As a producer, the market only asks, is the individual offering the best price to the buyer? The market ignores where the buyer or seller comes from, what language he speaks, or what religion he professes; it binds all participants into one interconnected network of division of labor and mutual benefit through voluntary exchange. Political power, violent conflict, and national passions are replaced with voluntary interdependency, peaceful competition, and international tranquillity.
How different our own times are from those before 1914. Today, politics intrudes into everything. Both domestic commerce and international trade are regulated and controlled by the state. We live not in the era of liberty but in the age of politics. What does this mean? English historian Ronald M. Hartwell helps us to understand:
But what about the international organizations established by the governments of the world—the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and numerous others—to facilitate the lowering of trade barriers and creation of an international order of freer trade? The establishment of free trade is a simple process for any government to introduce. From a specified date, all barriers and restrictions on the free movement and exchange of goods and services, raw materials and resources, and the free movement of all peoples are abolished. The exchange of goods and the movement of commodities and people from that day forth are free from governmental control and regulation and, thus, are depoliticized. This is all governments need to do and should do. And it can be done in short order through the passage and signing of legislation repealing all political prohibitions on the freedom of trade and the freedom of movement.
But this is not the purpose of the international organizations established by the governments of the world. Their purpose is to facilitate politically managed trade. Governments use these organizations and international forums to control and plan the terms under which goods may be sold to each other on the world market and the conditions under which resources and commodities may enter each other’s countries. Towards the end of the Second World War, when many of these international organizations were being established, free-market economist Henry Hazlitt analyzed the nature of the problem in an article entitled “Free Trade or State Domination?” in The American Scholar (Winter, 1944-45):
But nowhere has the heavy hand of state control over international affairs in our century been so harmful and cruel as in the arena of human migration. Since the First World War, governments throughout the world have introduced or reinforced the barriers to the free movement of people from one part of the world to another. People in poverty or political fear in their home countries have been unable to escape—or severely restrained in their ability to escape—from their poor or oppressive conditions. It has been bad enough that often the governments under which they have lived, viewing them as the “property” of the state, have prevented or restricted their ability to escape to a freer land. But it has been the blackest mark on the conscience of those freer countries to deny entry to many, if not most, of these wandering souls when they have been lucky enough to find ways to exit from their countries of origin.
In the 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese fled their homeland to escape from communist tyranny; many still languish in refugee camps in various parts of southeast Asia. Chinese escaping from their communist homeland have drowned in the waves off America’s shores as they have tried to avoid arrest by the Coast Guard and the agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1993 and 1994, our television screens were filled with images of boatloads of Haitians escaping from political tyranny and economic poverty; they have been either forced back to their fate in Haiti or have faced an uncertain future in holding areas policed by the U. S. military. Member states of the European Union have instituted new, more stringent rules and bureaucratic procedures to weed out those who are asking for immigrant or refugee status in Western Europe from Eastern Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East, with many of these unfortunate human beings running away from the violence in the former Yugoslavia or the repression and terrorism of Moslem fundamentalists in Algeria. At the very time that means and costs of transportation from one part of the globe to another have become increasingly accessible and affordable for a growing number of people, governments have attempted to raise the political draw- bridge to prevent people from living and traveling to where they desire.
All such practices succeed in doing is either forcing many of these potential immigrants to continue to languish in poverty and repression in their home countries or living lives as illegals in a politically hostile host country. Periodically the press will run stories on the hardships and exploitation that many of these illegal immigrants suffer, e.g., in the United States. The newspapers will point out that they work for below-market wages because their illegal employers threaten them with exposure and deportation if they “cause trouble” and ask for a higher salary or commonly received fringe benefits. The fact that they come to and work in America even under these lower-than-market conditions means that the employment they find still represents an opportunity to earn money for themselves and their families that is better than in their home country. But their hardships and employment disadvantage are precisely due to their illegal status. If they could enter the country openly and legally, no employer could long retain them for wages and benefits less than those offered to workers of equal skill employed elsewhere in the American economy; if some employers tried to do so, these new members in the American workforce would “migrate” to better jobs in other sectors of the market. Thus, government immigration restrictions actually assist the exploitation of these new—albeit illegal—Americans.
It is time to move beyond the age of politics and to advance to a new and even freer and more prosperous era of liberty. Freedom of trade and freedom of movement are two of the essential hallmarks of a society of free men. If a human being is denied the right and opportunity to earn his livelihood how and where he finds it most advantageous and agreeable, then in the most fundamental sense he is not a free man but a tool of those who control the governments of the world. He is a puppet whose very movement is determined and controlled by another. Are we not tired of political control and economic manipulation by the state after all the disastrous consequences of big government in our century? Is it not time to say to every human being: Work at what you want, trade with whomever you desire, live wherever you feel happiest.
The Future of Freedom Foundation exists to bring the United States and the world closer to that new era of liberty in which every man will be free to do these things. The essays in this volume make the case for complete free trade and unrestricted free immigration. The majority of them have appeared in previous issues of the Foundation’s monthly publication, Freedom Daily. Some are reprinted from other publications, with the hope that together they present the most consistent case for global freedom. If we succeed in this fight, the 21st century may, indeed, be the noblest and most majestic in human history.
—Richard M. Ebeling
Vice President of Academic Affairs
The Future of Freedom Foundation