As the U.S. Congress decides whether to normalize trade relations with China, the issue is being cast as one of money versus morals. Should Americans trade freely with China for the sake of U.S. prosperity? Or should they forego this monetary gain because trading with China means doing business with a repressive regime?

But in addition to this moral case against free trade, there's a moral case for free trade. I don't mean the one President Clinton is making--that encouraging economic liberty in China ultimately encourages political liberty. I mean a moral argument for free trade generically--kind of like the generic economic arguments for free trade that are made in Econ 101.

You probably won't run into this argument unless you spend time with libertarians, its prime champions. Libertarians are good at asking basic questions about the government's right to do things. (Naturally, they believe the government doesn't have the right to do many things.) In this case, the question is: Suppose a guy in China makes a shirt and wants to sell it to you. Suppose you want to buy it. By what right does any government--yours, China's, or some supranational body such as the World Trade Organization--step in and void the transaction? Isn't what happens between two consenting adults their own business?

Of course, there are a few widely accepted justifications for the government's restraining commerce. Suppose the shirtmaker was in the United States, and the making of shirts spewed forth pollution. The government might force the shirtmaker to pay fines that would make the shirts more expensive. Even some libertarians would accept the rationale for this intervention: The transaction between you and the shirtmaker creates "negative externalities"--harm that falls diffusely on the public, thus inviting regulation.

But if the shirtmaker isn't showering pollution on U.S. citizens--and when the shirtmaker is in China, it probably isn't--by what right does the U.S. government impede the transaction? Labor leaders might argue that American wages are undercut by your buying the Chinese shirt. For that matter, they might make this argument when you buy a shirt from a non-union American shirtmaker.

But in either case, the libertarian reply would be the same: So an American worker loses a little and an American consumer (you) gains a little. Life--including economic life--is full of things that are good for one person and bad for another. It isn't the government's job to go around trying to figure out whether one person's loss outweighs the other's gain and to correct the imbalance.

As it happens, many economists would say that the worker's loss doesn't outweigh the consumer's gain; free trade theoretically raises a nation's overall prosperity. Libertarians of a certain type--economically oriented ones--have been known to cite this fact. But to classic libertarians--whose gyroscope is moral philosophy, not economics--this calculus is irrelevant anyway. To them, the point is that the government is constraining your freedom when it raises tariffs. The fact that it is economic freedom is incidental.

Indeed, it could just as well be romantic freedom. Suppose you fell in love with someone in China--maybe while visiting Asia, maybe over the Internet. Would it be OK for the American government to step in and prohibit the romance just because your high school sweetheart, who had long been carrying a torch for you, complained to his congressman that foreign competition was depriving him of access to your heart?

What the two basic types of libertarians--the economists and the moralists--share is a suspicion of government. History, they say, is chock-full of governments exploiting their power. Surrendering a bit of personal liberty can be a slippery slope to surrendering lots. So we should let governments constrain individual behavior only when there's a clear and compelling public interest. National defense? Maybe. Keeping American shirtmakers employed? No way.

The moral case for free trade creates some nice rhetorical ironies. Critics of trade with China say to the libertarians: How can you defend your position in the name of freedom and then do business with a regime that represses freedom? The libertarians reply: How can you claim that your concern is with "human rights" when you want to limit my right of free association--my right to associate with the shirtmaker of my choosing?

It's not trivially easy to say who is right here. Then again, there's no rush to decide. A number of interest groups stand a chance of swaying the congressional vote on granting China permanent most-favored-nation status. But moral philosophers are not among them.

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