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Book Reviews

From Free Trade to Forced Trade: Canada in the Global Economy

by Peter Urmetzer

With his academic pedigree as a sociologist, Peter Urmetzer offers a fresh perspective on free trade. His book provides a more nuanced view of the topic than is usually peddled by journalists, demonstrators, and politicians.

Urmetzer’s premise is that free trade is, at best, a neutral activity. The best thing about this argument is the room it allows for intellectual play. Avoiding a simplistic thumbs up/down approach, the book challenges assumptions and follows economic theories to their logical extent using historical examples, statistics, and imagination. Chapters brim with interesting comparisons, test hypotheses, and generate some original thought.

Both economists and activists would benefit from the insightful chapters summarizing Canadian trade history and the economic philosophies of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Maynard Keynes. The chapter on Smith is a highly interesting mix of philosophical theory and historical context. Urmetzer also uses Marx to illuminate Smith’s ideas, and the frequent misappropriation of them by supporters of free markets.

However, the chapter on trade and the environment is filled with specious reasoning. Urmetzer argues, for example, that negative health effects can always be easily measured (thereby pronouncing bovine growth hormone and genetically modified food safe). Worse, he cites rising life expectancy as a reflection of environmental health. His limp conclusion is that the relationship between the environment and trade is complicated.

Considering the fine insights throughout the rest of the book, this section amounts to little more than an unfortunate afterthought. The chapter on the Third World, however, is a clearly argued return to form. Here are, amid sharp criticisms of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, some constructive ideas for improving the deeply flawed process of Third World development. Many in the streets would approve.

There are ultimately more questions here than answers, but Urmetzer argues his position well and his questions are worthwhile.