The right to trade, though perhaps not at the top of the list when considering the innate rights of humanity, is nevertheless comprehensively represented and defended by countries and businesses around the world. The World Trade Organization influences and shapes the economic and enterprise policies of its signatory countries which represent the vast majority of the Earth’s population and laws governing the conduct of policy and practice in enterprise and competition could be said to be the most comprehensively and consistently enforced regulations on the planet. They have lead to the dissolution of monopolies such as Standard Oil and “Ma” Bell and the levying of huge fines for breaches of competition law.
This implies that the rights of enterprise, private trade, and market activity are important and worth protecting. But given the environmental and social challenges of the next few decades, how likely is it that such rights can be protected in the future?
Trade as we have known it is endangered. Clear trends in demographics, urbanization, water quality and availability, climate stability, resource scarcity and ecosystem health represent risks to the continuation of trade as usual.
There is no point preserving the rights of private enterprise when the very viability of the market itself is threatened by risks that are being largely ignored by trade law, economic rules and governmental policy.
A growing number of companies have made commitments to ambitious sustainability goals which derive from a clear eyed and rational interpretation of observable environmental and social trends. Unilever, Nike, and GE, recognizing that their longevity relies upon the health and vitality of natural capital and the continuing stable functioning of natural systems, have developed plans to transform their production activities to become sustainable.
Transition pathways to a sustainable future have also been developed by groupings of progressive business, yet the success of such plans are existentially imperiled by an economic and political consensus which seems to be more concerned with protecting and valuing the enterprise of the past than building the enterprise of the future.
Economic and political frameworks have so far failed to present a cogent and consistent pathway for sustaining global enterprise in the face of predicted disruption. This failure represents a restraint of future trade.
In the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine and Thomas Spence coined the phrase “The Rights of Man”--establishing the idea that humans are born with what should be inalienable rights. Such rights were integrated into the foundations of the French Declaration of Human and Civic Rights and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Perhaps it is time for a parallel declaration to enshrine and protect the birthright of all humans to partake in activity which brings them reward, security, and the use of their physical and cognitive abilities in perpetuity (or until the end of their world).
- Just as commercial entities have a right to trade now, they should also have a right to trade over the long term.
- Just as people all across the world wish to earn money for themselves and their families, so they should have the right and ability to do this over time.
- Just as the graduates of today seek to apply commercial and technical skills to careers in enterprise, so they should have the rights to do so without massive structural instability and market failure.
- Just as those living today have had the opportunity to use the rules of trade and enterprise for personal and common gain, so those as yet unborn deserve the rights to do the same, without being born into a bankrupted, broken system on a declining planet.
It is time for trade law, policy, and regulation to protect the rights of future trade, identify and remove barriers which represent a restraint on future trade, and to allow all current and future members of our species to thrive and share in the enterprise which sustains us all.