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Once Again, the Case For Free Trade Isn’t One That Sacrifices the National Interest

Here’s another letter to a new correspondent:

Mr. A__:

Thanks for your follow-up e-mail. In it, you write that I here “overstate that economists’ support of free trade is focused on benefits to us and other Americans instead of how trading with Americans is a boon to foreigners.” You “all the time run across defenses of free trade which require Americans to sacrifice to improve foreigners’ lives.”

Please point me to an argument offered by a pro-free-trade economist who alleges that freer trade in America will harm Americans on net but is justified because it will improve the lives of foreigners. In nearly 50 years of reading economics, and over thirty concentrating on the economics of trade and trade policy, I’ve never once encountered such an argument. What I have often encountered are people who think that the case for free trade in America is one that ‘globalists’ push to help foreigners despite the net damage that free trade will allegedly inflict on America. Such a belief seems to undergird the “America First!” notion, and explains many of Trump’s diatribes against trade. It’s a belief seemingly held also by Oren Cass. But this belief is fictional. Ignorant of both the logic and literature of economics, people such as Trump and Cass leap from the correct fact that economists widely support free trade to the completely fantasized incorrect conclusion that most economists are ‘globalists’ who (recalling Cass’s words) condescendingly lecture about how the national interest should be subjugated to the global interest.

Indeed, if you’re looking for people who are willing to sacrifice the welfare of Americans in order to improve that of foreigners, you’ll find plenty of them in the ranks of protectionists. Protectionists frequently insist, for example, that we Americans should impose tariffs on imports thought to be produced by ill-treated foreign workers. While such tariffs will raise Americans’ cost of living, protectionists justify these tariffs as a means of pressuring foreign governments to improve working conditions for foreigners – a justification that strikes me as being quite at odds with “America First!”

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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