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He’s a Protectionist

Here’s a letter to Cafe Hayek reader Arnie Rowe:

Mr. Rowe:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You ask if I “underestimate President Trump’s comprehension of trade.” In your view, Trump “might really be a free trader, just one who bargains hard.”

Not a day goes by now that I don’t encounter – usually in my e-mailbox – a claim identical to yours. But I don’t begin to buy it.

Unlike Trump, no true free trader asserts that imports reduce net domestic employment. Unlike Trump, no true free trader frets about bilateral trade deficits. Unlike Trump, no true free trader interprets trade deficits with the rest of the world as unambiguous evidence that we are “losing” at trade. Unlike Trump, no true free trader counts exports as the benefit of trade and imports as the cost. And unlike Trump, no true free trader wishes to bargain – “hard” or otherwise – for deals that result in us increasing the value of our exports relative to the value of our imports.

Trump has made public pronouncements on trade for the past 30 years. Nearly all of these pronouncements sound as if they are uttered by a cartoon-character protectionist, and every one of these pronouncements is perfectly consistent with ages-old protectionist mythology.

In short, all that Trump says about trade reveals that he is marinated to his marrow in protectionist fallacies. Further, he has surrounded himself with three trade advisors – Navarro, Ross, and Lighthizer – each of whom routinely expresses ignorance of trade that is on par with that of their boss.

Finally and worst of all, Trump’s own trade policies differ in no essential ways from the protectionist policies of the past or from the protectionist policies of foreign governments.

As the old saw goes, if it waddles, paddles, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Because Trump governs, reasons, and quacks like a protectionist, he’s a protectionist.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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