In this era of populist politics and demagoguery, of fierce partisanship and stark divides, logical solutions to many world issues tend to be shrouded under a cloak of pretenses and ignorance. Instead of confronting the facts and arriving at conclusions that help real people, figures on both the left and right seek paths that only serve to further their ideological fixations. Perhaps nowhere is there more confusion then the perennial issue of free trade.

I would like to focus on a very specific relationship, how a world that embraces a flourishing trade environment is one that ultimately elevates the health of its disenfranchised. However, reducing trade barriers can serve to ameliorate many ills of modern civilization, including climate change, poverty, and even war. Rather than both sides of the political spectrum who argue increasingly exorbitant and unrealizable policies whose inevitable failure will leave only the status quo of health outcomes in there wake, free trade offers a timeless solution to many world issues, especially that of ameliorating health outcomes the world over, not just in Canada.

Understanding this causality requires the recognition of a few fundamental truths. One, that higher incomes in developing countries will tend to improve health-outcomes through the implementation of public health-care policies. For the nation, higher incomes mean greater tax revenue to build infrastructure such as a clean sewage system to prevent cholera, safer roads to prevent vehicle collisions (a leading cause of death), disseminate mosquito nets to inhibit insect borne diseases, provide vaccinations to children, and to perform innumerable other measures that all serve to improve the health of a nation. Yet, this did not require income redistribution. Instead, by increasing the pie of total income, all citizens were able to share in the prosperity, and provide a larger tax revenue for the same proportion paid.

Image by Vidal Balideo

Further, higher incomes serve to bolster individual health directly. Most obviously, in the many developing nations that lack a single payer health-care model, the costs of visiting and receiving management from a health professional make even the thought whimsical. However, even in the developed world, the disparities in income serve to exacerbate the issue of health. It has become no large secret that the social determinants of health are perhaps one of the most crucial factors in determining health. Just as poorer countries have worse health outcomes, so to do the poorer citizens in every nation have a significantly increased burden of illness. Sufficient amounts of fresh produce for instance, can be prohibitively expensive to poorer income brackets, resulting in impaired nutrition that inevitably leads to disease. The lack of education associated with poorer communities may not provide these members with the opportunity to understand the benefits of seeing a physician. Indeed, even the costs of travel can be excessive for someone of modest means.

This relationship possesses a greater magnitude then linear, for the poor bear a greater negative impact than the positive benefits of the rich. Unfortunately, this is a cyclical relationship. Poor health feeds back onto itself, incapacitating the physical and mental ability to work, and forcing time to be wasted on medical appointments and hospitalizations that might be better spent productively. Both the individual and society incur significant costs from these resources that might be employed elsewhere and more gainfully. Raising income, therefore, becomes one of the best means to improve the health of (and perhaps easiest, since there are evidently myriad other benefits to being raising average income) nations the world over.

Next, free trade is one of the easiest means by which to raise the average income of not just Canada, but also the world. Dissecting all of the rational and mathematical reasons for such an assertion is beyond the scope of this current article, and occupies copious amounts of textbooks; economics is not a science that one can merely have a cursory understanding to appreciate it. Interested readers are invited however, to read The Economist Explains: Why is Free Trade good? In short, free trade enables nations to purchase at a lower price compared to the cost of producing at home. Each nation can then focus on the goods and services it may produce at the lowest costs. The World Trade Organization estimates that by reducing regulation alone, or more specifically “automating manual processes, creating ‘single window’ documentation and making regulations transparent and consistent from country to country” could raise global GDP by 1 trillion each year. That is a lot of money. This is not an issue on which there is considerable debate, which is incredibly surprising for economists who famously proliferate with opinions like rabbits. Evidently, Canada would also share in the global prosperity.

Our first free trade agreement with the United States alone far back in the eighties increased Canadian productivity by 13.8% over a ten-year period. All of these benefits will evidently lend to increased incomes among Canadians, which in turn improve health outcomes, especially amongst our poorest who then have greater opportunities for gainful employment. Or to be the recipient of social assistance from greater tax revenue incurred by increased business.

I do not argue that removing tariffs and other trade barriers could solve all social ills, and especially would not be a miracle for eliminating the social determinants of health in both this nation and the world. Yet, such a beneficial policy point in many respects, unanimously held in economics to be one of its few indisputable conclusions, and with such minor negative consequences outweighed by the net benefits, is hardly being discussed in this election. Unfortunately, none of the major political parties have made this a priority. Canada may end up neglecting simple and practical policy changes founded in the literature that would greatly improve the standard of living and health of our nation.

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