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Human Rights Carry a Price for Canada

Lorne Gunter

Edmonton Journal

17 November 2006

The on-again, off-again, on-again meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chinese President Hu Jintao has reopened the debate over what is the proper balance between human rights and international trade.

For hundreds of years, people have wondered what is the correct confluence of trade, rights, morality and peace.

Frederic Bastiat saw trade as a way to immunize nations against war. Trade enough with another nation and it is unlikely to attack you.

Writing in the early 19th century, the French economist and legislator argued, "The progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace, the spread of commerce, and the diffusion of education, than upon the labours of cabinets and foreign offices."

Perhaps his most famous quote was: "When goods don't cross borders, soldiers will."

Similarly, the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises insisted: "What generates war is the economic philosophy of nationalism: embargoes, trade and foreign exchange controls, monetary devaluation, etc. The philosophy of protectionism is a philosophy of war."

Another French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville theorized that, "Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions. Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid anger."

When nations trade with one another, they are too eager for moderation, compromise and avoidance of anger to make war.

Does it then hold that Prime Minister Stephen Harper should avoid expressing Canada's displeasure with China's human rights record so as to preserve our trade relations with the Communist regime?

Would holding his tongue in order to preserve Canada-China trade eventually lead to political liberalizations?

Will unfettered trade eventually give the Chinese the rights Harper claims to want for them, even if he never raises the subject of rights with Chinese leaders?

Bastiat, von Mises and de Tocqueville would likely argue it would. Keep trading, and the moderating influence of "the spread of commerce" will eventually provoke in China Western-style political reforms to rival the economic ones currently ongoing.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this. Just look at the influence of Southeast China -- the economic engine of that country and the source of most of its trade with the West.

As centres such as Shanghai and Nanjing have grown into powerful industrial city states, they have applied great pressure on Beijing to ease its iron-fisted regulation of commercial life. In many ways, businesses are now freer there than here thanks to the way foreign trade has forced the Chinese Politburo to leave the industrialists alone to do business with the rest of the world.

But the compromise de Tocqueville praised has, in this case, led to an entrenchment of the Politburo's political power and its suppression of dissent. Chinese businessmen have turned blind eyes to the Central Committee's often deadly repression of democracy advocates and religious dissidents in return for commercial freedom. They have agreed to leave the government alone to kill, imprison and torture, so long as the government leaves them alone to make money.

And they have ignored Beijing's massive military buildup, which is not for "the maintenance of peace, the spread of commerce and the diffusion of education."

Rather than trade being the great freer of people and guarantor of peace, I think democracy and the rule of law are.

That is not to say Bastiat, von Mises and de Tocqueville are entirely wrong. Trade is a good opener of doors. It can lead to an interdependence of nations (or at least a mutual desire to do nothing that would jeopardize prosperity on either side), which does lessen the threat of war.

And protectionism is an irritant that can provoke hostilities.

But democracy and rule of law are simply better peacemakers.

Rudolph Rummel, the University of Hawaii political scientist who has shown that democracies rarely attack one another, says: "The more power a regime has, the more likely people will be killed. This is a major reason for promoting freedom."

Without democracy and respect for law and human rights, trade is insufficient to prevent war.

Germany and Japan were vigorous traders in the 1930s. Still, they attacked the rest of the world because they were dictatorships, and their dictators became greedy for power over more and more lands and people, regardless of how much trade each country was doing.

At one time, too, Rome was the most heavily trading nation on the planet, and the most belligerent.

Prosperity does make people less warlike, no question. But the diffusion of power out to the people makes peace even more likely.

When Harper pushes the Chinese government to respect human rights, he is pushing it to enact political reforms that will make China less likely to attack its neighbours.

Or us.

A dictatorship grown satisfied on the fruits of trade will almost certainly be less likely to attack than an unsatisfied, protectionist dictatorship.

But a prosperous and happy democracy is more likely still to keep the peace.

So when Harper pushes China on human rights, he is at the same time looking out for our national security.

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