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Free Trade Needs Louder Cheerleaders

There’s a new RealClear Opinion Research poll out, and it shows a disappointing lack of support for free markets and trade. RealClear found that only half of registered voters thought global trade had been a net positive for the U.S. over the past ten years. This is a significant decline in support, down from what had been a bipartisan consensus for decades:

 If there has been one domestic policy issue in post-World War II American politics that bound together mainstream Republicans and Democrats, it was free trade. It has long been a near-article of faith among the establishment that the Smoot-Hawley tariff statute, a protectionist measure signed into law in 1930 by Herbert Hoover, helped wreck the world economy and exacerbated the Great Depression.

…Data compiled over the past three decades by the Gallup polling organization shows, not surprisingly, that Americans have the least confidence in free trade during economic downturns.

What’s different now is that the economy is doing well by almost every macro measure, meaning that one would expect Americans to have more faith in open global markets than they do. 

This is due, in part, to both a sense of complacency on the part of free trade advocates in the years leading up to the 2016 election, and the negative effect that President Trump’s rhetorical attacks on trade have had been on public opinion since he joined the race in 2015. 

A large portion of the U.S. electorate has always been susceptible to attacks on the way free exchange builds wealth—understanding how markets work requires us to take in to account both the seen and the unseen effects of economic decisions. The “solution” to the alleged unfairness of trade deficits—tariffs, for example—have the direct, understandable effect of making imports more expensive. But it is more difficult to see all of the jobs that are lost (or simply not created) because of the resulting costs and inefficiencies.

We need more voices in the news media, and throughout American society, repeating the simple truths about free markets and trade. U.S. workers, and especially those who have lost manufacturing jobs in recent years, have serious worries about the future of the domestic economy. They deserved serious answers. Free trade is not going to magically re-create jobs that have been lost to international competition, and a free economy will always be more productive in the long run. Even tariff-protected industries themselves often suffer from bad trade policy. If we want a brighter future for all Americans, we won’t try to trade tomorrow’s more prosperous economy for a little illusory economic safety today.