National Security & Defense

Arguments against Free Trade are Deeply Flawed

(Gordon Tipene/Dreamstime)
But let’s at least be honest about who the winners and losers are.

For years, supporters of free trade have been trying to reach a bipartisan consensus on the issue. They’ve finally succeeded. Free trade is now unpopular in both parties.

Perhaps because I am a conservative, I can at least understand where most conservatives are coming from in their opposition to free trade. Overt displays of nationalism and patriotism (which are not the same thing, by the way) are not merely tolerated on the right, they’re often celebrated. Conservative intellectuals openly extol American exceptionalism, while liberal intellectuals tend to deride the notion. Virtually no Republican politician agonizes over wearing a U.S. flag pin.

Meanwhile, the Left adores cosmopolitanism, the United Nations, and what some people call “transnational progressivism” or “one-worldism.” Conservatives tend to scoff at all of the above, preferring national sovereignty and the American Way.

Of course, this stuff can go too far. That “freedom fries” business was silly.

Beyond a sincere misunderstanding about how trade works, the emotional case against free trade on the right boils down to “America first.” That phrase has rich historical (and bipartisan) connotations, but let’s leave all that aside. According to the protectionists, free trade is bad for American workers and some American businesses. America should come first. So we should do whatever is necessary to prevent bad things from happening to Americans. If doing so is bad for non-Americans, that’s not our problem.

RELATED: The Truth about Trade

I think the math on all this is wrong. Free trade is good for most American workers and all American consumers, not just the “1 percent.” Indeed, it is largely thanks to trade that the average American worker is in the top 1 percent of earners in the world.

The protectionists are also wrong philosophically. Countries don’t trade with others countries; businesses and consumers transact with other businesses and consumers. Protectionism is corporate welfare by other means.

But the point is, I get where conservatives are coming from.

#share#I’m more perplexed about where liberals — and in Bernie Sanders’s case, socialists — are coming from. Last I checked, liberals considered themselves “citizens of the world.” Barack Obama’s famous campaign speech in Berlin (which was better in the original Esperanto) was all about the need to tear down the walls between nations. For the last decade, liberals in the Democratic party and the media have invested enormous amounts of time and energy arguing that American citizenship is almost a technicality. The very term “illegal immigrant” is forbidden by most newspaper style guides.

RELATED: Free Trade Isn’t a Burden, It’s a Blessing and an Opportunity for American Industry

Sanders says that he believes in “fair trade.” What he means is that we can’t be expected to do business with countries that pay their workers a lot less than we pay our workers. He suggested to the New York Daily News this week that we should have free trade only with countries that have the same wages and environmental policies as us, which is another way of saying we shouldn’t trade with poor countries.

In practical terms, Sanders wants to keep billions of (non-white) people poor — very poor. If America were a flea market, his policy would be akin to saying, “Poor people of color cannot sell their wares here, even if customers want to buy them.”

RELATED: Trade Restrictions and Closed Borders Are Reminiscent of the 1930s

International trade, led by the United States, has resulted in the largest, fastest decrease in extreme poverty in human history. Roughly 700 million Chinese people alone have escaped extreme poverty since 1980, and most of that is attributable to China’s decision to embrace the market economy and international trade. Want to keep Africa as poor as possible? Throw up as many trade barriers as you can.

Politically, I get where Sanders is coming from. American labor unions hate foreign competition. Democrats, meanwhile, don’t mind importing poor foreign laborers because they believe those workers will become Democratic voters. But importing goods made by those same foreign laborers if they stay in their home countries? Outrageous!

#related#One irony to this all of is that despite all the textbooks that claim nationalism and socialism are opposites, the reality is that when translated into policy, they’re closer to the same thing. The rhetoric may be different, but the economic program of nationalism is socialism, and the emotional underpinnings of socialism boil down to nationalism. For instance, Sanders wants socialized medicine. Well, what is the difference between socialized medicine and nationalized health care? Spelling.

I’m no fan of Donald Trump and I think he’s wrong on trade. But at least he’s honest when he admits he’s for America first.

Most Popular

Film & TV

Trolling America in HBO’s Euphoria

Of HBO’s new series Euphoria, its creator and writer Sam Levinson says, “There are going to be parents who are going to be totally f***ing freaked out.” There is no “but” coming. The freak-out is the point, at least if the premiere episode is to be believed. HBO needs a zeitgeist-capturing successor to ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Kamala Harris’s Dreadful DA Record

In 2005, the sharp-elbowed, ambitious district attorney of San Francisco had the opportunity to correct an all-too-common prosecutorial violation of duty that the leading expert on prosecutorial misconduct found “accounts for more miscarriages of justice than any other type of malpractice.” Rather than seize ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Case against Reparations

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on May 24, 2014. Ta-Nehisi Coates has done a public service with his essay “The Case for Reparations,” and the service he has done is to show that there is not much of a case for reparations. Mr. Coates’s beautifully written monograph is intelligent ... Read More
Film & TV

In Toy Story 4, the Franchise Shows Its Age

For a film franchise, 24 years is middle-aged, bordering on elderly. Nearly a quarter-century after the first Toy Story, the fourth installment, which hits theaters later this week, feels a bit tired. If earlier films in the franchise were about loss and abandonment and saying goodbye to childhood, this one is ... Read More

The China-Iran-Border Matrix

President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have worked the U.S. into an advantageous position with a consistent policy toward bad actors. We are now at a point that even left and right agree that China’s rogue trajectory had to be altered. And while progressive critics of Beijing now are coming out of the woodwork ... Read More