Meat, "free trade," and democracy: as goes South Korea, so went Missouri--and what to do about it.

Author:Morris, Jane Anne
Position:Thinking Economically
 
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In the spring of 2008, tens of thousands of South Koreans held candlelight vigils every day for over a month to protest being forced to accept beef from the United States. The US government claims that barring our beef--South Koreans' failure to let down their cattle guard, you might say--is an illegal "trade barrier."

This isn't the first time the US has resorted to international bullying to force people to take our meat. In 1996, the European Union (EU) banned imports of US artificial hormone-fed beef for public health reasons. A challenge from the US convinced the World Trade Organization (WTO) to brand the EU policy a "free trade" violation.

You've got to wonder what those South Koreans think might be wrong with US beef. (I'll give it away--it is a justified fear that the US does not take sufficient precautions against "mad cow disease.") But my concern here is not the meat but the mechanism.

You might also ruminate on why forcing a country (or community) to import things it clearly doesn't want to import is called "free trade." The shortest definition of "free trade" is Forced Trade: communities (or countries) are forced to import stuff they think is dangerous or otherwise objectionable, and export stuff (such as water and other resources) that they want to keep at home. Such matters far transcend the notion of mere "trade." What's at stake is no less than self-governance and democracy.

The scraps of self-governance that South Koreans are struggling to retain have already been stripped from, say, Missouri. Those protesters in Seoul (and others around the world under draconian "free trade" regimens) are going through something that has been happening in the US for well over a century, and is so well established that we are scarcely even aware of it.

Passing laws to protect citizens from the possible dangers of incoming meat has long been a concern of governments. And for decades, states in the US did just that. But starting in the 1870s, the Supreme Court, acting in the interests and at the behest of corporate meat purveyors, used the Constitution's "commerce clause" to rationalize a domestic "free trade" zone in the US.

That meant that protective state laws like these had to go:

* Fearing the spread of "Spanish fever" in cattle, in 1872 the Missouri legislature passed a law severely restricting import of Texas cattle into the state. The Supreme Court declared the law a "trade barrier"--unconstitutional on commerce clause grounds.

* In...

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