by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
What lies behind these fears? There are, I think, three explanations, one psychological, one aesthetic, and one political.
First, the psychological objection. Free trade is counterintuitive. Our hunter-gatherer instinct is to provide against famine, to hoard. Relying on invisible strangers for basic necessities feels wrong. Never mind that Singapore, which imports even its drinking water, transformed itself from a mosquito-ridden swamp into a gleaming city state simply by dropping barriers to trade. Such facts run up against millions of years of evolution.
Second, the aesthetic objection. My children’s homework is full of stories about nasty corporations exploiting textile workers in, say, Vietnam. Those stories lack any sense of context or perspective. Now, you and I wouldn’t want to work in a Vietnamese sweatshop. But we have not spent our lives bending our backs in rice paddies. We have not fled villages that lacked electricity, clean water, and schools. Employees of foreign companies in Vietnam earn 210 percent of the national average income, and their wages are rising. If we want their wages to rise faster, and their working conditions to improve commensurately, what do you suppose would help—campaigning against free trade or buying their stuff?
It’s the third, objection, though, the political one, that seems to animate American protectionists. Free trade brings dispersed gains but concentrated losses. Importing cheap Chinese steel would make almost every American a bit better off, as prices fell, productivity rose, new jobs were created, and money was freed up for other things. But voters, being human, would attribute that rise in living standards to themselves, not to free trade. The losers, by contrast—the small number of workers in industries that were undercut—would blame the government and vote accordingly.