Fear of change permeates Congress

Washington—The president’s resolve regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement is, we are told, at long last like chilled steel. Unfortunately, he occupies a shrinking office and heads a cringing party in a nation displaying a contradiction of modern capitalism.

The man who ran for president chanting “change” as a mantra and lamenting the “gridlock” of divided government finds NAFTA in jeopardy because there are too few Republicans in Congress and too many Democrats afraid of change. And there is this final filigree of irony: If members of Congress were serving under term limits, which Clinton opposes, NAFTA probably would pass easily.

The post-Cold War deflation of the presidency was predictable. What is astonishing is the marginalization of the office when it is occupied by a Democrat and the legislative branch is controlled by Democrats. Congress passed his budget package, but just barely, and against its better judgment, and only because his presidency was said to be at stake. Now neither personal affection nor political calculation inclines congressional Democrats to do anything else for him. They certainly are not moved by deference toward his office that is so much diminished it was threatened by the budget vote.

Sen. Bill Bradley exaggerates when comparing NAFTA’s importance to the Louisiana Purchase, but he rightly says it probably is the most important foreign policy measure of Clinton’s term. This is so because of the effect defeat would have on liberal trade policies everywhere, on Mexico’s internal reforms, and on nativist and protectionist sentiments here. Yet the Democratic majority leader and the whip in the House are opposing NAFTA. Try to imagine two such Democrats in 1965 doing something like that to Lyndon Johnson and living to tell about it.

Members of Congress think about jobs—theirs—constantly, and they believe this: The pains of NAFTA may be actual at a point when the gains may still be merely hypothetical. That is, jobs lost because of NAFTA may be more conspicuous and easy for an opponent to point to than jobs that did not exist until created by forces unleashed by NAFTA. So careerists in the think more that two years ahead, are reluctant to vote for anything, however beneficial to the nation, if its benefits would be apparent only after the next election.

Furthermore, NAFTA is jeopardized by a change in the political culture described by Clive Crook, deputy editor of The Economist. Writing in the issue celebrating 150 years of that journal, he says capitalism is afflicted by a “contradiction” quite unlike the choleric contradictions Marx imagined.

Social change and economic growth are linked. but developed democratic societies are deeply ambivalent, fearing change as much as they desire rapid growth—2 percent annually, doubling output in 35 years, may be insufficient to funds welfare state entitlements for aging populations.

Democratic governments are held responsible, Crook notes, for any process that produces casualties, as economic dynamism invariably does. Furthermore, as capitalism makes nations increasingly wealthy, those nations become decreasingly tolerant of the discomforts of change. They crave stability. Therefore, the coming of capitalism to undeveloped countries, by generating competitive pressures on developed nations, diminishes those nations, support for liberal trade policies.

Chris Patten, governor of Hong Kong, writing in the same edition of The Economist, issues a relevant warning:

“A Martian visitor traveling from the mud and disease of Tudor London via the teepee settlements of North America to the Ming mandarinate of 16th-century Beijing would have guessed without a millisecond’s hesitation that China would lead the world for centuries to come. Where Europe was made up of warring cities and domains, China had an efficient government to preside over a sprawling but united country. China knew the power of the pen and the sword; it had invented both printing and gunpowder. It had invented the compass, too, and had sent a huge navy half way around the world. No one could touch China for plenitude of civilized living; no one could match its inventiveness and industrial might. But it did not work out like that. The Martian got it wrong. The Middle Kingdom retreated behind its great wall, and history told a different tale.”

Protectionists, frightened by a Mexican economy one-twentieth the size of ours, and anxious to cower tariff walls, should study history’s stories of vanished supremacies.