Safe Neighbors

BEN WATTENBERG

September 24, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington. -- Forget the silly studies about whether America will gain or lose 200,000 jobs under the North American Free Trade Agreement. That's funny-farm stuff in an economy of 118 million jobs -- 0.16 percent of the total.

Moreover, many millions of jobs are ''lost'' and ''gained'' every year under normal circumstances as people get hired and fired in the dynamic flow of a free economy. In any event, both sides are pumping their data.

Hand one thing to arch-NAFTA foe Pat Buchanan. He is not arguing about 0.16 percent of the labor force. His view is that the free-trade agreement is a big step toward loss of national sovereignty, toward globaloney, toward internationalism, and away from ''America First.'' Big themes. And all wrong.

During the 1980s, political activists -- hawks and doves alike -- felt passionately about events in Central America. Both sides had a common and correct idea: that it was important to live in ''a safe neighborhood.''

Hawks said that having communists (like the Nicaraguan Sandinistas) on the mainland of North America was inviting disaster -- that is, the neighborhood would be unsafe. Back then, Mr. Buchanan understood that.

Doves said that support of the contras would only yield further turbulence, resulting in an unsafe neighborhood. Some doves, like Michigan Rep. David Bonior (now Democratic whip and a fiery opponent of NAFTA), made the case that what would make the neighborhood safe was -- what? -- more trade!

Nations usually get in trouble precisely because they are situated in bad neighborhoods. The former Soviet Union was hated by the turbulent nations and nationalities surrounding it. Poof! So far, America has been blessed. Until now our neighbors have been oceans, a placid Canada and a backward Latin America, topped by Mexico.

Latin America is changing. There is a boom going on, creating First World economies. Mexican wages have increased by about 40 percent since 1987. The total fertility rate of Mexican woman has declined starkly from 6.6 births per woman in 1970 to 3.4 today, and sinking like a stone toward the lower rates of modern societies.

We have a choice. We can live in a hemisphere where we are regarded as the rich, stingy uncle, hated because we won't let anyone else into our club. That yields turmoil, for which we will pay, sooner or later. Or we can be seen as the helpful stronger brother, making it possible for the rest of the family to succeed through free trade. This yields some harmony and greater prosperity for all, as Adam Smith told us a long time ago.

Yes, NAFTA can be seen as a step toward One Worldism, but it will be a world where America will be No. 1 by far, made ever more so as nations move toward our signature ideas of free politics and free economics.

''Safe neighborhood'' is a powerful case, but not an easy one to make when people are nervous about jobs. It can be made best by the president, the person whose pay grade and job description calls for national-security arguments.

Mr. Clinton is now into NAFTA politics big time, selling it (finally) with skill and vigor. The recent White House pep rally was most impressive, with four presidents in attendance and corporate CEOs stacked like cordwood.

If NAFTA goes down to defeat, Mr. Clinton suffers. But if NAFTA passes, it's good for America, and for the president. NAFTA opponents from the left -- certainly the unions -- will end up supporting Mr. Clinton anyway. Opponents on the right -- Mr. Buchanan and his statist conservatives -- won't support him no matter what. The center, where elections are won, is still wide open.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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