Thomas Donlan of Barron’s devotes his latest editorial commentary to describing the role of politics in limiting the unquestionable benefits of free trade.

Trade is a voluntary act of exchange between independent actors seeking mutual profit. But governments negotiate trade deals for reasons that go beyond the needs of business. Each country’s government has vested interests supporting it. Many vested interests have commercial weaknesses, exposing them to competition from businesses in foreign countries. The vested interests push their governments to protect them from strong foreign competitors, in exchange for domestic political support.

Witness the turmoil and strife in Washington last week, when Senate Democrats tried to tie irrelevant provisions about labor unions, environmental rules, and currency values to a “fast track” bill (not that there’s anything fast in Congress).

The bill would give President Barack Obama authority to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade-liberalization agreement, and submit it to Congress for a single up-or-down vote. …

… The U.S. has been leading the world toward international business liberty since World War II, tiny step by tiny step. Although the practical effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are often overrated, derailing it would be a step in the wrong direction, with powerful symbolic effect. It would give satisfaction and inspiration to Americans who would rather live in the mythical economic security of Fortress America.

Organized labor has been trying to wreck trade liberalization since the early 1970s, when U.S. manufacturing first began to rust away. It was no coincidence that the most heavily unionized industries faded first.

It’s futile to expect a union boss to acknowledge that productivity and profit—not unions—create jobs and raise wages. But citizen-consumers shouldn’t buy into a narrow self-interest that can only claim to represent a small percentage of the workforce. They should be free to buy what they want, wherever it comes from.

Some people in the U.S. environmental movement are playing the same kind of con game. They want trading partners to adopt U.S. levels of conservation, pollution control, green subsidies, and regulatory power. They may be somewhat more idealistic than the union cynics, but achieving their good intentions also requires our trading partners to earn new wealth first.

Free trade for all Americans, to have liberty to do business and buy products as they can around the world, is so important that it should not have the help of the government.