WASHINGTON. — -- Washington. The debate over North American Free Trade Agreement came about as close to class war as American politics ever gets. The conflict did not rest on a misunderstanding. It reflected a real conflict of real values.
No one denied that eliminating barriers to investment and trade between the United States and Mexico would cost the United States some jobs. But NAFTA supporters denied that the low-wage jobs that will be lost to Mexico's low wage economy are worth saving.
No one denied that new jobs would be created in the high-tech industries in which the United States has a comparative advantage. But the AFL-CIO and the congressmen representing American industrial workers noted that the new jobs would not help workers who lost their existing jobs. To the opponents it seemed clear that the costs of NAFTA would be borne by labor, while the profits would be reaped by business.
The NAFTA debate pitted a dynamic, internationalist capitalism, focused on investments, markets and profits for American business, against a more conservative labor movement that focused on the jobs and living standards of American workers. The resistance of American unions to NAFTA resembled the French farmers' opposition to GATT, and the Japanese rice farmers' opposition to opening Japan's rice market.
Such opposition seems short-sighted to the partisans of free trade. But it seems like common sense to workers in threatened industries, and farmers who are not producing rice as cheaply as someone, somewhere else. Those workers -- and those farmers -- see no reason a domestic industry should be sacrificed to a multinational corporation or to an abstract theory of international trade, or even to lower prices for consumers. They see no reason that their jobs, communities, families or environments should be given lesser priority than building a global market, reducing costs of production, cutting consumer prices, increasing investment opportunities or improving the living standards of others.
A dynamic capitalism forces the pace and the scope of change. It challenges entrenched values, habits and interests. It leapfrogs over national boundaries. It emulsifies industries and economies. "Competition is global," Bill Clinton said after his NAFTA victory. "We must take this new world head-on."
The NAFTA fight won, Mr. Clinton confirmed what many guessed but few had mentioned: that he Modernization will do much to 'harmonize' social conditions in rich and poor countries.
would now ask the other Latin America democracies to join the new free market. A number of those other Latin countries are ready, having already, unilaterally, liberalized their trade policies, abandoning subsidies and protectionism.
No one knows for certain what the consequences will be of eliminating barriers to trade and investment between economies different as those of the United States and Mexico. It seems reasonable to expect, as Mexico's government expects, that greatly increased interaction will dramatically speed up modernization of Mexico. It is beginning to appear, moreover, that an open trade policy could dramatically alter North-South relations, create opportunities for the poorer nations and redistribute wealth between rich and poor countries.
But modernization is a very complex process that happens to people as well as production. Becoming modern is coming to think and feel differently about time, space, knowledge, change -- and about oneself. The experience of the last century proves that not all people are equally "ready" for modernization.
Culture is the principal determinant. We know that Western culture (found also in Latin America and Eastern Europe) and Confucian culture are compatible with modern capitalism and that, as Peter Berger wrote in his important book, "The Capitalist Revolution," "certain components of Western bourgeois culture (notably those of activism, rational innovativeness, and self-discipline) are prerequisites of successful . . . development anywhere."
Therefore, in areas where Western culture exists, increased contact such as provided by NAFTA can be expected to speed economic development, enhance living standards, technical skills, productivity and competitiveness. Before too long, Mexicans will be competing with North Americans for high-tech jobs -- but by then their wages should have risen to the level of wages in other developed societies -- as has happened in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Modernization will have "harmonized" the societies that U.S. policy declined to "harmonize" -- and will probably do so better than programs designed for the purpose.
Bill Clinton has decided to embrace the capitalist dynamic, to speed up the association of the U.S. and unlike economies, rather than structure programs for their "harmonization" -- as the European Community has done with Spain, Portugal and Greece. Mr. Clinton decided to "make change his friend" -- as he had promised.
Most Americans will accept his decision. After all, we accept change because we are a nation conceived in change. Our universal values make the doctrine of free trade nearly irresistible, even when its consequences are troublesome. If the process of globalization is to be slowed, it will be done by governments of the European Community and Asia where pre-capitalist and pre-democratic values are more deeply rooted and widely shared -- not by the United States.
The large sucking sound heard round the world (first reported by Ross Perot) is of other societies being sucked into the modernization process, as the global trading system sucked in Bill Clinton. It is not inevitable, but the fruits of modernization are nearly irresistible.
The rejection of NAFTA did not happen, because the president and a majority of the Congress decided it should not. Democrats will not soon forget the image of a Democratic president working intensively to defeat the position embraced by most of his party.
But that is another subject for another day.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.