Friday, February 16, 2007

Calling All Stations Between Free And Fair

How is shipping fuel taxed?

I ask for two reasons. Firstly, because for all the discussion of aviation taxes, the global economy does not yet revolve around air freight and all those ships have to burn oil and the results of that burning have to go somewhere. But secondly, and more importantly, I ask because I support fair trade and that does not make me guilty of liberal thoughtcrime.

One of my funniest formative political experiences was attending a party political Q&A for Fairtrade Fortnight early in the Cameron era. On the platform with a Lib Dem MP, a Labour Councillor and representatives of the Greens and Respect (sic) was a young(ish) Tory who, throughout the whole debate, could not bring himself to even say Fair Trade. It was wonderful to see someone who could expect to be part of the new, young Conservative Party unable to think of trade as being anything other than free.

And yet the same attitude lives and breathes in our own party. Somewhere along the line, Fair Trade became, for the pure liberals at least, a lefty conspiracy to destroy the global economy through rampant protectionism. Support for anything other than free trade would result in the demolition of both our cherished economic credibility and our liberal credentials.

Now I don’t deny that free trade is, as a moral and academic position, a lofty and desirable goal. But life is neither a moral nor an academic exercise, it is something you live, and that requires an additional level of imagination.

The trouble is, the current stretch of my imagination is catastrophic. I have seen no compelling evidence yet that global free trade could result in anything other than the wholesale purchase of the developing world by the developed, entrenching the current situation where wealth generation is a pipedream and the benefits of natural resources and manpower flow inexorably northwards. The necessary simultaneous growth in transportation would meanwhile tip an already burdened planet well over the edge and into environmental meltdown.

[/end socialist-sounding rant]

Ultimately we want trade to be free but that does not mean it has to be loose. There must be restrictions on the system, and these must be mandatory, governmental controls (if I hear another case for market mechanisms being the way forward I swear I’m going to hurt someone) but they must be global controls, produced on an equitable framework that is designed from the start to evolve to meet changing market conditions.

My vision, then, is for a global trade system where no trade is prohibited, but where governments are permitted to tax all products on the basis of their carbon cost in production and transportation. At the same time, we must ensure global standards for labour rights that include a minimum wage proportionally related to wealth generation, so that everyone benefits fairly from their economic efforts.

But just in case anyone still thinks such a system is illiberal and ignorant of our heritage, allow me to remind you of one thing; we have always, always, always believed that freedom is nothing without the realistic ability to use that freedom. Freedom is nothing, then, without fairness; how is what I am proposing any different?

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