International Trade Theory and Policy
by Steven M. Suranovic

Trade 125-5

Non-Discrimination Fairness

A belief in the equality of people motivates not only the sentiment for equality of outcomes, such as income and wealth, it also motivates a belief in the equality of actions. The idea that people or businesses or governments should be non-discriminatory means that their actions should treat people as if they were equals.   To be fair, equals should be treated equally. To be fair, the actions of businesses or the policies of governments should be non-discriminatory among equals.

Thus, businesses should not refuse to serve customers because of their race, gender, or religion. Nor, should they refuse to hire employees for these same reasons.  To do so would be discriminatory, unfair and in most countries illegal. Similarly, women, blacks or non-landowners should not be prevented from voting in elections as they have, at times, in past history. The changes in government policies that afforded the rights of suffrage to these groups were made because of the recognition that these groups were inherently equal to white, male, landowners and thus should not be discriminated against.

In an international trade setting, non-discrimination is a key feature in the guiding principles of the World Trade Organization.  Countries that are members of the WTO agree to maintain most-favored nation policies towards each other.  This means that the most favorable trade policy offered by a country must be offered to all other countries that are members of the WTO. Similarly, WTO member countries agree that their domestic policies will satisfy the “national treatment” principle. This means that countries agree to treat foreign businesses operating in their country in the same way as domestic businesses are treated.  Taxes and regulations cannot discriminate against foreign firms.

Opponents of globalization who are concerned about labor standards in less developed countries have argued that workers should be treated equally across countries. This may mean that health and safety standards, minimum wage rates and even actual wage rates themselves should be equal across countries so as not to discriminate among workers.

In each of these cases, fairness means non-discriminatory policies or actions with respect to different groups of individuals judged to be equals.

International Trade Theory and Policy - Chapter 125-5: Last Updated on 8/2/01

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