Chicago. -- In San Francisco recently, ex-governor Jerry Brown was trying to explain why his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement is different from Ross Perot's opposition to it. Mr. Perot thinks NAFTA will make Americans lose jobs. Mr. Brown thinks it will make America lose its soul.
We need to put our own house in order, he argues. American jobs have already gone south of the border, not because of stated trade policies, but because we do not insist on equitable labor policies here.
It is hard to argue against the proposition that America's soul is in danger -- whose isn't? It is a tougher thing to claim that we can save our soul by canceling our overtures to Mexico. If all the world had to wait on America's finding the true economic religion, we would have to replace older and cruder forms of isolationism with a perfect spiritual solipsism.
Some of those listening to Mr. Brown sensed this. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., an old Brown campaigner, said, ''I should have thought you, of all people, would be an internationalist.''
As governor of California, Mr. Brown had his own policy for outer space. Now he thinks the president of the United States should stay home from Mexico and work out a politics of meaning for the capitalists around us.
As I say, it is hard to argue with Jerry Brown's spiritual aspirations. He had just returned from a period of meditation and discussion in Mexico. But politicians who deal in less sublime considerations should keep this in mind:
We ask Japan to open up its trade with us, though the Japanese can rightly argue that they will lose some jobs and some profits by this action. How can we make our case to Japan, while sealing off our border to Mexican competition? Free trade should not be something we adopt only when all the advantages are on our side.
The irony is that those who are most critical of Japan -- including Mr. Perot and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., -- are those who tell us, now, to imitate Japan in our dealings with Mexico. Unless equity is a concept we have disowned completely, the NAFTA agreement makes sense for us, and constitutes a pledge of our sincerity for other nations in the hemisphere and around the world.
We should pass the agreement, and let Jerry Brown and Ross Perot go off on the sidelines, where they can thrash out the differences in their sameness.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.