As I may have said before. What began as a challenging Liberal concept has, in its autumn years, become a dull, hackneyed apologia for monopoly. A justification of it. It is sad, but Liberals have only themselves to blame. They forgot that the monopoly of power was an important threat to liberty in business, as well as in politics.
Why this rant? Well, I came across an interesting commentary on the secretive world trade negotiations that are reaching a crescendo at the moment.
I can't find it now, but it was distinguishing TTP (the Pacific trade talks), which were largely about open borders, from TTIP (the European-US trade talks), which are mainly about intellectual property.
IP is an important concept. James Watt's steam engine launched the industrial revolution only when he and Matthew Boulton were able to extend his rights under the patent to develop it. By then, a good half century had elapsed since the 1710 Copyright Act, which first let publishers hang onto their copyrights over existing titles for 21 years, and over new titles for 14.
IP is important if you want to develop a market, but don't let's pretend it has anything to do with free trade. It allows investors to have some confidence when they try to intervene in a new market. It may be a useful tool, but it is the precise opposite of free trade. It is about restraining challenges by the small to make things safer for the big.
In fact, I have yet to hear of any provisions in TTIP which might have been recognised by the great pioneer of Liberal free trade in the UK, Richard Cobden - who died 150 years ago this year. This may of course be because the provisions remain secret.
They remain secret partly because of the infamous World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle in 1999, where Body Shop founder Anita Roddick was tear-gassed, which marked the end of any kind of technocratic consensus on global trade. This led directly to the bilateral talks which are going on today, which remain secret in a way that the technocratic mandarins of the European Union have never quite dreamed of.
There comes a point, when ideas like free trade need to be renewed - and taken back to their original meanings - and you can usually tell when that moment has arrived. Here are the signs:
1. When the idea is claimed only by those who want to extend the rights and power of the wealthiest and most powerful.
2. When great benefits are claimed for changes which remain secret.
3. When bizarre and dubious figures are concocted to show the broad benefits, but there are no figures about how these benefits will be spread.
I know people are worried about the investor-state protection provisions, which allow corporates to sue governments if they don't get their way. I know Vince Cable was worried about it when he was Secretary of State. He asked and was reassured, just as the FT was recently ("they had better be right", said their editorial writer).
But the legal action by the Australian mining company OceanaGold against the impoverished government of El Salvador, because they were not granted permission for a polluting gold mine, does not reassure others. Or me, come to that.
It is time we reclaimed the idea of 'free trade' for its original Liberal meaning. That will almost certainly mean dumping TTIP, if there is still time to defend the small against the big. Let's hope there is.
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