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Trinkets and Trade

A rhetorical strategy used by opponents of free trade is to describe the things that domestic consumers buy from abroad as superfluities — cheap, pathetic, contemptible indulgences that consumers selfishly gobble up from foreign producers and, in the process, damage the domestic economy.

I first noticed this strategy in early 2001 when I heard Patrick Buchanan speak at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Buchanan criticized free traders who, in his view, are content to see the U.S. economy destroyed by policies whose only ‘benefit’ is to allow American consumers to buy self-indulgent, unnecessary gadgets “down at the mall.”

A few years later I debated Buchanan on free trade; in that debate he used the very same line.

Lou Dobbs is another protectionist who, in his book Exporting America, asserts that the only ‘benefit’ of free trade is that it helps “consumers save a few cents on trinkets and T-shirts.”

And this letter in today’s New Orleans Times-Picayune ends with this plea:

Perhaps this is a good time for all of us to slow down and reassess what is important in life, not to rush back into stores to replenish our lost inventory of plastic baubles and trinkets made in China.

I’ll not here comment upon Buchanan’s and et al.’s officious and arrogant dismissiveness of people’s consumption choices. Nor will I challenge the dubious assertion that U.S. imports are chiefly baubles, trinkets, and T-shirts. Indeed, I’ll here assume that this assertion is accurate.

If it were true that American imports indeed are mostly low-value, insignificant, contemptible knick-knacks, then this fact would imply that the American industries destroyed by foreign competition are those that compete with such foreign producers — that is, American industries that produce baubles, trinkets, and T-shirts.

If protectionists such as Patrick Buchanan and Lou Dobbs dismiss as worthless the things that American consumers buy from foreigners, consistency demands that these pundits also dismiss as worthless the things that American industry would be prompted to produce by higher tariffs and other protectionist measures.

These protectionists certainly should not be permitted to get away with suggesting that protectionism would create domestic industries and jobs that produce worthwhile, cutting-edge goods and services.  Instead, these protectionists should be forced to admit explicitly that the American industries they seek to reinvigorate are those that produce worthless baubles, trinkets, and T-shirts.