The term free trade simply means that business people and others in the private markets ought to be able to trade freely with each other. But much as immigration has been perverted in terms of control, so free trade has been twisted around.
In a free-market economy, immigration would be controlled by private individuals who need labor or partners for their businesses, agricultural endeavors, etc. If someone could help with such an effort he or she would migrate with his or her family. If there was no employment the potential for immigration would go down, as one could not move without a place to stay and a way to make a living.
The situation is similar with free trade. If someone wants to trade with an individual in another country, then that person should be able to do so without government interference. What has happened is that government policy has taken over from the private sector much as it has in the area of immigration.
Because government has taken over from the private sector, the words free and trade have little meaning, or at least have changed their meaning as government bureaucrats have struggled to justify their expanded roles. Today, what passes for free trade is actually something called managed trade.
Managed trade is everywhere but there is almost no free trade. You will never read about this in mainstream publications because these publications will often identify politicians as free-traders. In fact, there is no such thing as a politician that is a free-trader. That politician is inevitably an individual in favor of managed trade. He may be in favor of a light regime of managed trade, but he will favor government interference, tariffs, taxes and quotas nonetheless in some form.
The reality of this situation can be seen in such countries as America where free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA were signed in the 2000s. In addition to being very bad for America's competitive stance, these treaties numbered THOUSANDS of pages. Free trade, in fact, does not need a single treaty. The parties and counterparties simply commence trading. Only in managed trade do agreements number in the thousands of pages.
Long ago Adam Smith wrote about the advantages of free trade as follows: "It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy . . . If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage."
It is most unfortunate that in the West, the cradle of free trade, managed trade has taken over so thoroughly. Today, mercantilist banking and industrial interests create vast documents with loopholes and advantages for their particular business interests. They then label such agreements as "Free Trade." Like so much else in the West that passes for business freedom, they are nothing of the sort.