Free trade gives ruling elites a stake in the rule of law. Opponents to the EU-US investment partnership should take note.

Child corpses aside, the saddest sight I saw as a correspondent in Africa in the 1980s was a bookshop window in Tanzania. Its English language display consisted of a few pamphlets about the country’s ‘ujamaa’ socialist system and a stack of copies of a single title from a British legal publisher.

It was a guide to Edward Heath’s unloved Industrial Relations Act, passed in 1971 and repealed three years later.

I suppose a crate of remaindered copies had found its way to East Africa as part of some aid scheme. So desperate was I for something to read that I almost bought a copy. 

I think about that bookshop, along with the frustrations of working in Tanzania at the time - every taxi journey beginning with a hunt for a petrol station willing to part with a couple of litres of fuel for hard currency - whenever I hear green-minded friends enthuse about local self reliance replacing the ‘unsustainable economies of free trade’.

I thought about it a lot the other night when I was reading the report of the House of Commons business select committee on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free-trade treaty under negotiation between the EU and US. 

The report comes over as deliberately even-handed. It lambasts both sides of the debate for a dearth of information and reliance on ‘dog-whistle’ politics, particularly when it comes to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) measures. Opposition campaigner 38 Degrees and supporter BritishAmerican Business are castigated equally for the quality of evidence presented to the committee.

This is worrying, because in swathes of public debate it has become a lazy assumption that to oppose TTIP is to be on the side of the angels versus corporate greed. 

The EU and the UK government are trying to argue back with facts, pointing out for example that, since 1975 the UK has signed 90 ISDS treaties and in that time only two - unsuccessful - claims have been brought against the UK. Both parties in the negotiations have also pointed out in a joint statement that no EU or US trade agreement requires governments to privatise any service, or prevents governments from expanding the range of services they supply to the public. 

Facts are of little use in the current climate, however. 

What should be said more often is that free trade is not just good for making money but a force for good in its own right. For a start, it makes war between the parties less likely. As the thoroughly unfashionable economist Milton Friedman observed, markets are the best way to get people who don’t like each other to work together.

But they also give ruling elites a stake in the rule of law. In a closed economy some organisation - typically the ruler's extended family - must assume the power to decide who gets what. An open economy doesn't necessarily abolish kleptocracy, but it gives rulers a stake in the rule of law. And from that tends to flow the values of political and intellectual liberty that campaigners against TTIP claim to hold dear. 

The alternative is empty bookshops and empty bellies. I know which side I am on. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor