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As nearly every economist worth their salt can tell you, as far as their profession is concerned, the prime end goal of liberalizing global trade as completely as possible is maximizing the entire world’s economic well-being. And theoretical, purely economic criticisms of the freest possible global trade have been dominated by questioning whether efforts to achieve this goal have truly have kept this promise, or are capable of doing so.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of this debate, or others focusing on related but distinctive issues bringing into play non-economic considerations – like whether trade and broader economic policies need to broaden their definition of well-being to include goals like increasing feelings of happiness and security, or like fighting climate change and other threats to the environment, or like preserving America’s national security, or like ensuring that the economic well-being being created is more equitably shared.

But these days, it seems that American policymakers in particular need to ask themselves a more fundamental question: Assuming the goal can be reached, is the greatest possible worldwide economic (that is, material) well-being actually a goal that the global trading system should be trying to reach? And all peoples and governments of good will, not simply the United States, have a vital stake in figuring out the right answer – especially if they place noteworthy value on free markets.

The presence of the word “governments” in the previous sentence points to a central complication that the welfare-maximizing enthusiasts seem to be missing.

Specifically, no one of good will could reasonably oppose maximizing the economic welfare of all the world’s individuals (assuming, of course, that whatever non-economic challenges caused by high growth – e.g., environmental threats – aren’t ignored).

But even leaving aside strategic and national security considerations, the organization of the world’s individuals into governments creates a big problem with this objective. Specifically, many of these governments have organized their national economies in turn around principles and practices that have nothing to do not only with free trade, but with free markets or any aspect of economic liberalism themselves – the idea that individuals and other economic actors (like businesses) have the right to make the (legal) economic choices they regard as serving their own best economic and/or non-economic interests.

China is the obvious example. Its system holds that, even though at a very local or micro level, individual and other actors (because of the point I’m about to make, I’ve always hesitated to use the word “businesses” or “companies” to describe any Chinese goods- or service-producing entities) can be permitted to act on their own impulses, any such economic decisions with broader effects should be made or be subject to the control of the state. And all resources related to the economy are ultimately accountable to the state as well.

There’s no legitimate doubt that freer trade has helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, and of course contributed to the economic well-being of myriad non-Chinese individuals and businesses and other entities that sell to this huge, burgeoning market, the growing prosperity of Chinese individuals. But there can also be no legitimate doubt that this free trade has also greatly strengthened a Chinese government whose practices clearly amount to a broad rejection of free trade and the rest of free market thinking.

Until now, it’s been easy to argue that whatever Beijing’s interventionist record, freeing up trade between China and the rest of the globe has improved the world’s wealth on net, even though China may have been the greatest beneficiary, and even though workers in high-income countries (to cite one prominent example) may have paid an economic price on net. 

But all this wealth creation unquestionably has strengthened this command-and-control Chinese system, its global footprint, and its influence over the world economy. If you believe in the virtues of free markets, how can this kind of development possibly keep increasing overall world economic well-being over any significant period of time (as opposed to spurring the kinds of brief boom periods that tend to become busts)? And if it can (and statist China has been a big global economic player for many years now), then maybe it’s time to rethink faith in free markets to begin with?

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind a long-time standard explanation of how China’s economic rise can be squared with support for continual global trade liberalization. It’s the confidence that more and freer trade with China will promote a liberalization of China’s domestic economy that will inevitably loosen the state’s grip trade and other foreign economic policies. But as known to anyone who’s been following China issues in recent years, Beijing has been reasserting control over much of the paltry amount of economic activity that it had previously ceded. Moreover, this trend didn’t begin with current leader Xi Jinping. So at the very least, the optimists are now under a heavy burden of proof to show that continuing to free up trade with China, or even fighting Trump-ian American backsliding, will maximize global welfare indirectly, by fostering Chinese internal economic liberalization.

Given China’s immense size, a China exception to the trade-spurring-welfare-maximization claim would be crucial enough. But it’s not just China. Economic intervention even dwarfing that practiced by the United States (including but hardly limited to the massive response to the financial crisis by the Bush and Obama administrations, and especially the still considerable stimulus supplied by the Federal Reserve) is common the world over. Gradations vary considerably, but fascinatingly, and perhaps revealingly, its strongest in East Asia, the region that, even leaving China out, almost everyone agrees has been the biggest net winner from trade liberalization going back to the early post-World War II period.

Unlike China, some of the leading East Asian beneficiaries of freer global trade, like Japan and South Korea, are U.S. security allies. But they conform with no reasonable definitions of free market systems, either. Should American policy, and the policies of other more market-oriented economies, support making these countries and their highly interventionist systems stronger, richer, and more influential as well?

China’s rise and increasingly anti-American actions on many fronts have prompted speculation that current bilateral tensions might eventually split today’s highly integrated global economy into separate, Cold War-like U.S.- and Chinese-dominated spheres. In fact, this may be a Trump administration goal. So far, this talk has emphasized the intertwined technology and national security reasons for pursuing this goal. But if free markets are all they’re cracked up to be, it may also be warranted for solely economic reasons.