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Where Have All The Free Traders Gone?


This week, Donald Trump likened international trade agreements to the rape of the motherland. Also, in his anti-market speech, the presumptive Republican argued that “politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.” Tons of people cheered him. Worse, people who know better said nothing.

It takes too much time and space to constantly point out all the lies Trump perpetuates about trade. But it’s worth mentioning that “globalization” is now one of those catchall insults which, like “neocon” or “elitist,” has lost any practical meaning. It’s far more likely you’ll see a Republican twisting himself into intellectual knots defending the party’s nominee than defending free trade. No one wants to be a globalist.

So few elected Republicans of note, other than Sen. Ben Sasse and perhaps a couple of others, pushed back against Trump’s litany of absurdities on international trade. Don’t these people supposedly believe in free markets? Many of them voted for the very deals the presumptive nominee of their party is now calling rape.

Even economists like Stephen Moore, who’s helped shape my own thinking on numerous economic issues over the years, argues that, well, yes, China is probably cheating on “some of these deals,” so we should renegotiate. The problem with this contention is that, as imperfect as deals may or may not be, Trump isn’t looking to rework them to stem wrongdoing or to open markets for more low-priced goods. He wants to raise tariffs, close those markets, start trade wars, and bring unproductive jobs “back” to America.

These policies would lead to an economic disaster. I know this because not that long ago a champion of free trade, economist Stephen Moore, argued that Trump’s protectionism undermines the idea that “Americans and workers all over the world” should “have access to the best-quality products at the lowest possible prices.” This, he points out, is all about comparative advantage, a theory taught to us by (the suspiciously foreign-sounding) David Ricardo.

Similarly, let’s dispense with the notion that Trump merely wants to end illegal immigration. His protectionist rhetoric goes far beyond that, blaming an influx of people, not only the illegal kind, for our economic troubles. But as Moore once pointed out, in 1980s and ’90s we saw nearly 20 million new legal immigrants enter the country —“one of the largest waves of newcomers in our nation’s history”— yet the United States created “nearly 40 million new jobs, the unemployment rate plunged by half, and the middle class saw living standards rise by almost one-third (between 1983 and 2005).”

Let’s also dispense with the idea that more trade regulation will alleviate crony capitalism and elite control, as Trump contends. The more regulations and restrictions you impose on the economy, the more rent-seeking you have. Trump wants to create more of this, not less.

Yet if you propose that American kids shouldn’t be saddled with low-paying, menial, unproductive jobs brought back from Vietnam, you’re a globalist now. We’ve lost 6 million manufacturing jobs over the past 12 years, and those loses are often meted out in human suffering. But, as if it needs to be repeated, U.S. manufacturing is producing far more with far less through efficiency and modernization.  That’s not going to change because of political anger.

So while the GOP was negligent in acknowledging the many legitimate anxieties of working-class voters, that doesn’t mean it has a duty to surrender to their worst instincts. I guess pinning the shifting realities of the economy on the Mexicans, Chinese, and immigrants is a lot easier than blaming robots and other technological innovations. But surely there are positive, free-market arguments available for Republicans to be making to these people. Silence is a vacuum, and Trumpism is filling it.

There are some conflicting poll numbers on trade. One Pew poll from earlier this year found that only a slight plurality of voters believe free-trade agreements are a net positive for the nation. Among Republicans and those who lean Republicans, a majority believe trade agreements are a negative.

It should also be noted that Democrats’ political reaction to Trump’s anti-free-trade speech wasn’t to defend the Trans-Pacific Partnership or North American Free Trade Agreement—or any of the deals that mainline Democrats have supported in the past. It’s not surprising that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who substantively agrees with the basic Trump trade positions, accused him of sending “American jobs overseas to line his own pockets.” That sort of zero-sum protectionist rhetoric is a backbone of the progressive economic rhetoric of Bernie Sanders, who is solidifying those kinds of ideas on the left flank of the Democratic Party.

But what about Hillary Clinton? Her surrogates only attacked Trump for outsourcing his branded apparel. There’s a legitimate point to make about hypocrisy, but making only that point affirms Trump’s position that trade is bad for the American worker and economy. In this age of gotcha politics, Hillary is blessed to have an opponent who gives her the space to avoid taking on thorny topics like trade in a serious way.

Like many Democrats, Hillary becomes increasingly critical of trade agreements when running for office — probably because she sees it as a way to woo white, working-class voters. She has oscillated on NAFTA, and gone from calling TPP the “gold standard” of trade deals to a deal she’s “reserving judgment” on. If you value free trade—and, obviously, it’s not the only issue—the best-case scenario for the country is that she’s lying again. Maybe he is, too. Although I doubt it.