Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Transatlantic Blog

Fact-checking Le Pen: Does free trade create ‘slaves in developing nations’?

In her CPAC speech, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen linked free trade with slavery in the developing world.

The former member of the French National Assembly said:

If we want to make France great again, we must defend our economic interests in the global market. The EU submits us to unfair competition with the rest of the world. We cannot accept a model that creates slaves in developing nations and unemployed in Western countries.

Is it true that the free market “creates slaves in developing nations”?

The Global Slavery Index is the most objective measure of slavery in every nation of the world (though its methodology has been questioned). Comparing the prevalence of slavery in a nation with the rates of economic freedom measured in the Fraser Institute’s World Economic Freedom Index and the Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of Economic Freedom allows us to test Le Pen’s statement.

The two lists look nearly like mirror images.

The nation with the largest proportion of slaves is North Korea. Unsurprisingly, it is ranked dead last by Heritage.

Of the 10 nations with the highest proportion of slaves which were also evaluated by the Fraser Institute, seven rank among the world’s “Least Free” economies. (North Korea, among other economically stifling nations, is not evaluated.) The Heritage Foundation lists only one (Qatar) as “Mostly Free.”

On the other hand, all but one of the nations with the lowest proportion of slaves ranked in the world’s top quartile for economic freedom. (The lowest score belonged to Belgium.)

The tables are as follows:

Nations with the highest proportion of slaves

Nation World Economic Freedom Index Index of Economic Freedom
North Korea Not Ranked Repressed (180)
Uzbekistan Not Ranked Mostly Unfree (152)
Cambodia 2nd  quartile (63) Mostly Unfree (101)
India 3rd quartile (93) Mostly Unfree (130)
Qatar 2nd quartile (45) Mostly Free (29)
Pakistan Least Free (127) Mostly Unfree (131)
Democratic Republic of Congo Least Free (147) Mostly Unfree (147)
Sudan Not Ranked Repressed (161)
Iraq Not Ranked Not Ranked
Afghanistan Not Ranked Mostly Unfree (154)
Yemen Least Free (123) Not Ranked
Syria Least Free (153) Not Ranked
Libya Least Free (154) Not Ranked
Central African Republic Least Free (158) Repressed (163)
Mauritania Least Free (145) Mostly Unfree (134)

 

Nations with the lowest proportion of slaves

Nation World Economic Freedom Index Index of Economic Freedom
Luxembourg Most Free (28) Mostly Free (14)
New Zealand Most Free (3) Free (3)
Ireland Most Free (5) Free (6)
Norway Most Free (25) Mostly Free (23)
Denmark Most Free (15) Mostly Free (12)
Switzerland Most Free (4) Mostly Free (4)
Austria Most Free (26) Mostly Free (32)
Sweden Most Free (27) Mostly Free (15)
Belgium 2nd quartile (42) Moderately Free (52)
Australia Most Free (9) Free (5)

 

That suggests a strong correlation between an open economy – including free trade – and reduced human trafficking.

What about political “slavery”?

If modern slavery does not flourish in capitalist countries, what about the prevalence of dictatorial regimes?

“Overall, it may be said that countries with greater economic freedom tend to have a high level of electoral freedom, and vice-versa,” according to the World Electoral Freedom Index, produced by (neighboring) Spain's Foundation for the Advancement of Liberty. Citizens have greater freedom to vote, run for office, and have their vote shape policy in economically free nations, the reported concluded.

Only a system of free and informed exchange can “bring about co-ordination without coercion” within a society, Milton Friedman explained in Capitalism and Freedom.

But “globalization promotes democracy both directly and indirectly,” wrote Jagdish Bhagwati. “Rural farmers are now able to bypass the dominant classes and castes by taking their produce directly to the market.” The resultant prosperity allows the newly empowered peasants to assert their political will. “Globalization leads to prosperity, and prosperity in turn leads to democratization of politics with the rise of the middle class,” he wrote.

On the other hand, EU tariffs are one of many barriers to the formation of a prosperous African middle class.

 “Unfair competition”? True, but….

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen asserted that the EU subjects France to “unfair competition with the rest of the world.” The EU is a customs union that artificially inflates the price of imported goods, which disproportionately harms developing nations. Its Common Agricultural Policy slaps an 18 percent tariff on imported food to reduce competition with the EU’s government-subsidized farmers. Other tariffs disincentivize developing nations from producing value-added, finished goods that would enhance and diversify their economies. African nations hope forming a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) will help them leverage a better deal with the EU.

The EU certainly subjects France to “unfair competition,” but the deck is stacked against the world’s poorest nations.

Having it both ways

Finally, as Michael Brendan Dougherty observed at National Review, the idea that free trade generates slavery “differs from Trump’s contention that foreign countries are getting the better deal out of free trade.” Either “we've made other countries rich” (to quote Donald Trump’s inaugural address), or we’ve allowed rapacious capitalist slave-drivers to colonize and enslave the noble indigenous populations of multiple continents. The two notions do not rest comfortably beside one other.

Conclusion

The data appear to show that economic openness – with private property rights and the rule of law – reduces, rather than facilitates political repression and human slavery.

This is important for people of faith. The Apostle Paul clearly presented slavery as incompatible with Christianity in the Book of Philemon. In a joint statement last February, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of England condemned “all forms of human enslavement as the most heinous of sins, inasmuch as it violates the free will and the integrity of every human being created in the image of God.” Those who oppose human or political slavery may want to encourage the policies that create greater stability and prosperity: economic liberty and the rule of law.


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.