The Free Trade Paradox

No issue is more entwined in paradox than free trade versus protectionism. Here’s the first. Polling suggests that voters recognize the benefits of free trade more now than at anytime in many years, even as the presidential candidates advocate more protectionism.

The polling company Gallup recently studied public attitudes on trade over the past quarter century. The question Gallup has asked over the years is whether free trade is more of a “threat” to America or an “opportunity.” In 2016, 58 percent said trade was more on “opportunity” versus 34 percent who said it is “a threat.” This may not be an overwhelming acclamation for international trade, but it is the most support Gallup has recorded.

Yet on the presidential campaign trail, Donald Trump keeps scoring victories in Republican primaries with his protectionist threat of a 45 percent tariff imposed on China. Meanwhile on the Democratic side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton and especially Bernie Sanders keep bashing free trade for shrinking the middle class.

These attacks against international trade are mostly spurious because American workers engaged in export industries get paid 15 to 20 percent on average more than workers in domestic-only jobs. We export high-value added products and import low-cost consumer items.