Free trade and trade agreements are not the same thing. In fact, they are often times in direct contradiction with each other. Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg recently wrote an article about this at The Stream. Gregg explains how all trade agreements are ‘managed trade,’ not free trade. He explains how free traders should approach the issue of economic nationalism and the best ways to work toward freer trade. Concerning the issue of trade agreements and managed trade, Gregg says this:
There’s no-one-size-fits-all form of trade agreement. Some are bilateral arrangements between two nations. Others are multilateral and embrace several nations. Within that framework, there are several possible arrangements.
You can have, for instance, single markets like the European Union. These involve the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor between all member-nations of the single market. But barriers are maintained or created against all non-single market members. Another model is a preferential trade area. Participating nations give preferential access to certain products from all the area’s members. Tariffs are reduced, but not completely abolished.
Note, however, that all trade agreements involve two or more governments negotiating how their citizens economically interact with each other. That also means they’re indirectly deciding how the same citizens will economically engage with people from nations who aren’t part of the trade agreement.