“All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
“Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”
Serious discussion about President Obama’s pet “trade deal” — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — is difficult due to the simple and erroneous fact that much of it is kept hidden from the public (thanks to Wikileaks and other sources, some of it is reaching the light).
Like any other deal that is supported enthusiastically by big business, the TPP is supposed to be great for workers at home and abroad. It is supposed to create jobs. It is supposed to impose strict labor and environmental standards. It is supposed to, in the words of the official government website,
provide new and meaningful market access for American goods and services exports, but also set high-standard rules for trade, and address vital 21st-century issues within the global economy.
But, transcending the actual contents of the trade deal and its potential impact is the fact already mentioned: the deal, which will affect billions of people worldwide, is being withheld from public scrutiny.
Of course, the big corporations which will be benefiting from the deal are permitted to know what’s in it, but hardly anyone else. Even members of congress and “cleared advisors” are allowed only limited access.
As one such advisor pointedly asks:
How can we properly advise, without knowing the details?
He writes earlier in the same article that,
The public criticisms of the TPP have been vague. That’s by design—anyone who has read the text of the agreement could be jailed for disclosing its contents. I’ve actually read the TPP text provided to the government’s own advisers, and I’ve given the president an earful about how this trade deal will damage this nation. But I can’t share my criticisms with you.
Could anything be more undemocratic?
It’s as if representatives of big corporations (they make up the majority of the “cleared advisors”), who only care about their bottom line, are saying: “Trust us, we’ll ensure that the deal works for the common good, not just for our wallets,” and we, the majority of the population, are expected to take a blind leap of faith.
This secrecy and profound attack on democracy has sparked significant outrage from labor groups, human rights groups, and environmental groups, and also from Senators like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and many others.
There is much to be said about trusting big business with decisions that will affect billions of working people across the globe.
But perhaps no one has spoken or written more eloquently on the potential dangers of this than Adam Smith, who discusses it in his monumental work, The Wealth of Nations.
Adam Smith, a classical liberal economist whose words are often (misleadingly) used to lend credibility to extreme formulations of free market capitalism, deeply understood the dangers of leaving key decisions to big business, or who in his day were the “merchants and manufacturers.”
Merchants and master manufacturers are, in this order, the two classes of people who commonly employ the largest capitals, and who by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share of the public consideration. As during their whole lives they are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of country gentlemen.
As their thoughts, however, are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candour (which it has not been upon every occasion) is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two objects than with regard to the latter.
Their superiority over the country gentleman is not so much in their knowledge of the public interest, as in their having a better knowledge of their own interest than he has of his.
It is by this superior knowledge of their own interest that they have frequently imposed upon his generosity, and persuaded him to give up both his own interest and that of the public, from a very simple but honest conviction that their interest, and not his, was the interest of the public.
Smith gave the businessmen of his time significant benefit of the doubt: As noted above, he believed that many of the “merchants and manufacturers” genuinely believe that the decisions they make are for the good of the world, even if they don’t appear to be so from the outside.
But, of course, the interests of big business and the interests of the public are often diametrically opposed.
The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public.
To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers.
To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens.
Because of the fact that the interests of businessmen are so frequently at odds with the great masses of the population, their decisions must be met with serious scrutiny.
The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.
It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.
Such scrutiny is being made impossible in the case of the TPP, and according to some, it’s for good reason.
Namely, the public wouldn’t like the deal if its details were made available. If the potential deal could be so beneficial to everyone, including the masses of the population, big business and the federal government would be pushing diligently for everyone to read it.
But, as Elizabeth Warren has observed repeatedly, the deal is hidden from scrutiny “because if the details were made public now, the public would oppose it.”
In a true democracy, public opinion dictates policy in some meaningful way.
If the public is against the deal, it shouldn’t be passed. As the negotiations progress, it will be interesting to see how our “merchants and manufacturers,” along with those in positions of political power, attempt to maintain the rhetorical farce of “democracy promotion” at home and abroad in the face of such anti-democratic tactics. Because, at this point, democracy in the United States is just that: rhetorical.