At first blush, the mercantilists' call for "free trade but fair trade" sounds reasonable.
After all, who can be against fairness? Giving the idea just a bit of thought suggests that fairness as a guide for public policy lays the groundwork for tyranny.
Think about the First Amendment to our Constitution that reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
How many of us would prefer that the Founders had written the First Amendment so as to focus on fairness rather than freedom and instead wrote:
"Congress shall make no unfair laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the fair exercise thereof; or abridging the fairness of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble in a fair fashion, and to fairly petition the government for a redress of grievances"?
How supportive would you be to a person who argued that he was for free religion but fair religion, or he was for free speech but fair speech?
Would you be supportive of government efforts to limit unfair religion and unfair speech? How might life look under a regime of fairness of religion, speech and the press?
The bottom line is that what's fair is an elusive concept and the same applies to trade.
Last summer, I purchased a 2010 LS 460 Lexus, through a U.S. intermediary, from a Japanese producer for $70,000.
Here's my question to you: Was that a fair trade?
I was free to keep my $70,000 or purchase the car. The Japanese producer was free to keep his Lexus or sell me the car.