Free trade within national borders is in some countries a comparatively recent development. Jean Baptiste Colbert tried to abolish internal trade barriers in France in the 17th cent., but that was not accomplished until the French Revolution, a hundred years later. In the German states Prussia took the lead in organizing the Zollverein movement after 1818. The desire to assure freedom from internal trade barriers in the United States was a factor in calling the Constitutional Convention. In Britain, the classic home of the free-trade movement, the term free trade was first used during the agitation for removal of the privileges of the chartered companies in the 17th cent.
In 18th-century Britain, free trade eventually came to mean the desire for a moderate tariff policy in international trade, especially with France. The rapid growth of British industry in the late 1700s (see Industrial Revolution) gave added force to the attack on international trade restrictions (see mercantilism). Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) provided a powerful intellectual basis for the free trade movement, and the later work of David Ricardo was important in developing the notion of comparative advantage as an argument in its favor. The most important practical blow in favor of the free-trade movement came with the formation (1839) of the Anti-Corn-Law League, and the repeal (1846) of the corn laws. The Anglo-French commercial treaty of 1860 represented perhaps the high-water mark of free trade.
After World War I, Britain reintroduced protection and a system of imperial preference in an attempt to establish a greater measure of economic autonomy. France, along with other European nations, historically followed a policy of protection. In the period of international economic dislocation in the mid-1930s, the United States reversed earlier policy and signed reciprocal trade treaties with many foreign governments, embracing a policy of selective tariff reduction for economic and political reasons. At present the United States is a relatively low tariff nation, although it still maintains a fairly restrictive system of import quotas. Japan also has restrictive import quotas, as well as high tariffs and other trade restrictions.
After World War II, strong sentiment developed throughout the world against protection and high tariffs and in favor of freer trade. The results were new organizations and agreements on international trade such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1948), the Benelux Economic Union (1948), the European Economic Community (Common Market, 1957), the European Free Trade Association (1959), Mercosur (1991), and the World Trade Organization (1995). In 1993 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was approved by the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. In the early 1990s the nations of the European Union (the successor organization to the Common Market) undertook to remove all barriers to the free movement of trade and employment across their mutual borders.
Critics of free trade zones argue that such measures are detrimental to domestic economies. In the case of NAFTA, for example, opponents contended that the jobs of some American workers would be "exported" to Mexico, where labor costs are lower. Many have continued to oppose the international impetus toward freer trade, arguing the accords not only fail to protect jobs in more developed nations but also harm workers and the environment in less developed nations, where the laws are more lax or less enforced. Despite such objections, support for free trade has continued. In Apr., 2001, for example, 34 nations of the Western Hemisphere committed themselves to the development of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, though movement toward such an organization subsequently stalled. In May, 2004, the Central American Free Trade Agreement was finalized by the United States and five Central American nations; the Dominican Republic is also a member of the group. The United States, Japan, China, and other countries have also negotiated bilateral free-trade agreements with individual nations or regional trade associations; such agreements generally open trade in some areas while preserving the protection of politically sensitive economic sectors.
See also reciprocal trade agreement.
See G. B. Doern and B. W. Tomlin, Faith and the Free Trade Story (1991); D. B. Yoffie, Beyond Free Trade: Firms, Governments, and Global Competition (1993); A. E. Eckes, Jr., Opening America's Market (1995); J. J. Schott, The World Trading System (1997).
Area within which goods may be landed, handled, and re-exported freely. The purpose is to remove obstacles to trade and to permit quick turnaround of ships and planes. Only when the goods are moved to consumers within the country in which the zone is located do they become subject to tariffs and customs regulation. Free-trade zones are found around major seaports, international airports, and national frontiers; there are more than 200 such zones in the U.S. alone.
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Policy in which a government does not discriminate against imports or interfere with exports. A free-trade policy does not necessarily imply that the government abandons all control and taxation of imports and exports, but rather that it refrains from actions specifically designed to hinder international trade, such as tariff barriers, currency restrictions, and import quotas. The theoretical case for free trade is based on Adam Smith's argument that the division of labour among countries leads to specialization, greater efficiency, and higher aggregate production. The way to foster such a division of labour, Smith believed, is to allow nations to make and sell whatever products can compete successfully in an international market.
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Trade pact signed by Canada, the U.S., and Mexico in 1992, which took effect in 1994. Inspired by the success of the European Community in reducing trade barriers among its members, NAFTA created the world's largest free-trade area. It basically extended to Mexico the provisions of a 1988 Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, calling for elimination of all trade barriers over a 15-year period, granting U.S. and Canadian companies access to certain Mexican markets, and incorporating agreements on labour and the environment. Seealso General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; World Trade Organization.
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International organization whose purpose is to remove barriers to trade in industrial goods among its members. The EFTA's current members are Iceland, Liechteinstein, Norway, and Switzerland. It was formed in 1960 by Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and Britain as an alternative to the European Economic Community (EEC). Some of those countries later left the EFTA and joined the EEC. In the 1990s Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway joined the European Economic Area, which also included all members of the European Union. Each country in the EFTA maintains its own commercial policy toward countries outside the group.
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