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"The Dirty Little Secret" of Free Trade

Via boing boing comes an intriguing idea from the always -- well, intriguing -- Larry Lessig:

Now that [the US is] the world's leading exporter of intellectual property, we're also the most self-righteous about the importance of protecting it globally...

This push to protect intellectual property is defended as just one aspect of free trade -- the aspect that benefits Hollywood...

The dirty little secret, however, is that we don't respect the free trade rules that we impose on others. While the US sings the virtues of free trade to defend maximalist intellectual property regulation, we poison the free trade that developing nations care about most -- agriculture -- by subsidizing farming in the industrialized world to the tune of $300 billion annually. Rhetoric about family farmers aside, most of that money passes quickly to agribusiness...

A block of powerful developing nations should first take a page from the US Copyright Act of 1790 and enact national laws that explicitly protect their own rights only. It would not protect foreigners. Second, these nations should add a provision that would relax this exemption to the extent that developed nations really opened their borders. If we reduce, for example, the subsidy to agribusiness by 10 percent, then they would permit 10 percent of our copyrights to be enforced (say, copyrights from the period 1923 to 1931). Reduce the subsidy by another 10 percent, then another 10 percent could be enforced. And so on.

The mechanism is clumsy, but the message is clear: Both the subsidy of agribusiness and the subsidy of local culture and science violate the principles of free trade by ignoring American intellectual property laws.

Lessig could go even farther and point out that, while the piracy of copyrighted materials certainly harms content industries, agricultural subsidies kill. Literally. When the US and Europe (Europe is at least as bad as the US when it comes to subsidizing agriculture) drive Third World farmers out of business because they can't compete with subsidized First World crops, eventually, the absence of efficient indigenous farmers leads to food shortages and deaths.

I've made my living developing, marketing, and selling intellectual property. Even so, it's hard to feel much sympathy for American industry in the face of such blatant free trade hypocrisy.

For most US administrations, "free trade" means "free trade in the goods in which we're most competitive, and continued trade restrictions and subsidies in the goods in which we're least competitive." This has to stop somewhere. Sadly, I'm not aware of a single Presidential candidate who is saying this. In fact, the major candidates on both sides of the political spectrum seem to be falling over one another to promise more protections to more industries.


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I'll pose a philosophy question back to you, then: is it hypocrisy if everyone is doing it? Witness the recent destruction of South American milk industries by an Italian ag giant (that subsequently went broke due to corporate malfeasance). Ag trade issues are huge sources of discontent within the EU, within the NAFDA treaty, and even between the U.S. states.

Calling it "free trade" does not make it so. If it quacks like a duck....

I enjoy your blog!

First, thanks for the thoughtful comments here and elsewhere in my blog!

As for your specific comment on this entry, asking, "is it hypocrisy if everyone is doing it" seems to me fairly equivalent to asking, "is it lying if everyone is doing it?" The answer in either case is yes.

Yes, Europe is at least as bad as the US when it comes to free trade hypocrisy (as I noted in my entry). But this has nothing to do with the underlying hypocrisy itself. If we cause famine in developing nations to support corporate farming in the US, while demanding that developing nations respect our intellectual property, that is hypocritical behavior regardless of whether or not any other nation engages in it.

Forgive me, my comment was poorly phrased and/or poorly reasoned. I was attempting to agree to your point that legislation or policies labeled "free trade" hardly ever are so, while emphasizing the idea that everyone is seeking an advantage. As others have pointed out in more specific instances elsewhere on your blog, language usage varies, and, just like "common sense" ( and increasingly "common courtesy" ), the sound bite, shorthand terms are hardly ever true-to-fact. Perhaps I should have posed the question more in terms like "If no educated person believes that free trade policies really represent across-the-board free trade..." Cynical of me, I know, but I am knee-jerk wary of labels.

If, in practice, it looks like protectionism, it probably is.

I've probably still messed it up.


Sorry, I posted my last before I finished my thought -- postus interruptus!

I agree that intellectual property rights should be waived where strict adherence could cause loss of life. AIDS drugs in the third world are perhaps another example. One wishes that the copyright/patent holders in such situations would be more understanding/forgiving/proactive/
charitable when it comes to such violations. With no complaints, legislators and the implementers of foreign policy wouldn't have much of an agenda.

I think that a good portion of U.S. agricultural lobbying is done on the behalf of the "family farmer," and maybe less on the outward behalf of corporate ag industry, even though the latter corporate interests benefit at least equally.

Many examples of cases that illustrate your point on intellectual property as it pertains to third-world agriculture would probably be in the area of artificially genetically-altered crops. These products may still be too controversial for other reasons. An ag patent holder that supplied its products gratis to a needy group would probably garner accusations against the U.S. of dumping a bio-hazard by countries with a vested interest in competition.