Rethinking Free Trade II

I ended “Rethinking Free Trade” with this:

To put it bluntly but correctly, the national government exists not for the benefit of the people of the whole world or any part of it outside the United States, but for the benefit of the citizens of the United States.

Yes, some Americans benefit from free trade… But not all Americans do. And it is the job of the national government to serve all of the people. A balance needs to be struck. And those who pay the price of free trade … must be compensated in some way.

How and how much? Those are questions that I will grapple with in future posts.

I must first acknowledge some rather good points that I made in “Gains from Trade“, a nine-year-old post in which I address objections to free trade made by Keith Burgess-Jackson (KBJ):

How is “free trade” a “disaster for this country” [as KBJ puts it] when, thanks to the lowering of barriers to trade, but not their abandonment (thus “free trade”), millions of Americans now own better automobiles, electronic gadgets, and other goodies than they had access to before “free trade.” Not only that, but they have been able to purchase those goodies to which they had access before “free trade” at lower real prices than in the days before “free trade.” On top of that, millions of Americans make a better living than than they did before “free trade” because of their employment in industries that became stronger or rose up because of “free trade.”…

… KBJ seems to acknowledge as much in a [later] post … , where he gives a bit more ground:

Free trade is efficient, in the sense that it increases (or even maximizes) aggregate material welfare. The key words are “aggregate” and “material.” As for the first of these words, free trade produces losers as well as gainers. The gainers could compensate the losers, but they are not made to do so. I’m concerned about the losers. In other words, I care about justice (how the pie is distributed) as well as efficiency (how big the pie is). As for the second word, there is more to life than material welfare. Free trade has bad effects on valuable nonmaterial things, such as community, culture, tradition, and family. As a conservative, I care very much about these things.

… KBJ focuses on American losers, but there are many, many American gainers from free trade, as discussed above. Are their communities, cultures, traditions, and families of no import to KBJ? It would seem so. On what basis does he prefer some Americans to others?…

… KBJ seems to ignore the fundamental fact of life that human beings try to better their lot in ways that often, and inescapably, result in change….

Perhaps (in KBJ’s view) it was a mistake for early man to have discovered fire-making, which undoubtedly led to new communal alignments, cultural totems, traditions, and even familial relationships. Methinks, in short, that KBJ has been swept away by a kind of self-indulgent romanticism for a past that was not as good as we remember it. (I’ve been there and done that, too.)…

“Free trade” works because there are gains to all participants. If that weren’t the case, Americans wouldn’t buy foreign goods and foreigners wouldn’t buy American goods. Moreover, “free trade” has been a boon to American consumers and workers (though not always the workers KBJ seems to be worried about). To the extent that “wealthy American entrepreneurs” have gained from “free trade,” it’s because they’ve risked their capital to create jobs (in the U.S. and overseas) that have helped people (in the U.S. and overseas) attain higher standards of living. The “worldwide pool of cheap labor” is, in fact, a worldwide pool of willing labor, which earns what it does in accordance with the willingness of Americans (and others) to buy its products….

If “free trade” is such a bad thing, I wonder if KBJ buys anything that’s not made in Texas, where he lives. Trade between the States, after all, is about as “free” as it gets (except when government bans something, of course). Suppose Texas were to be annexed suddenly by Mexico. Would KBJ immediately boycott everything that’s made in the remaining 49 States? Would it have suddenly become unclean?…

Putting an end to “free trade” would make Americans poorer, not richer. And I doubt that it would do anything to halt the natural evolution of “community, culture, tradition, and family” away from the forms sentimentalized by KBJ and toward entirely new but not necessarily inferior forms.

The biggest threat to “community, culture, tradition, and family” lies in the non-evolutionary imposition of new social norms by the Left. That’s where the ire of KBJ and company should be directed.

There are a few chinks in my argument.

First, there will be in the short run (and sometimes even in the long run) a downward shift in the demand for labor in some sectors of the economy due to actions taken by foreign governments. Those actions consist of direct subsidies to industries that export goods to the U.S., and indirect subsidies in the form of tariffs and quotas on goods imported from the U.S.

I have seen “libertarian” economists justify direct subsidies because they benefit American consumers. (The same economists are glaringly silent about the disbenefits to American workers whose jobs are lost because of the subsidies.) It is jarring to read justifications of that kind from “libertarians”, who are usually quick to put Americans and foreigners on the same plane; for example, by promoting and praising “open borders” despite considerable disbenefits to some Americans. (I am thinking of  those whose neighborhoods are threatened by gangs of illegals. I am also thinking of those who pay higher taxes to subsidize the education, shelter, sustenance, and schooling of illegals — but who, unlike more affluent Americans, don’t engage the services of low-priced nannies and yard workers.)

And I must point out that those foreign-government subsidies aren’t free. They’re paid for, one way or another, by the citizens of foreign countries. Why would a “libertarian” transnationalist overlook such a thing? To justify “free trade” I guess.

It’s only fair to note that the U.S. government subsidizes American industries in ways that harm foreigners, that is, through direct subsidies, tariffs on imports, and import quotas. But any gains to workers in the industries thus subsidized do not offset the harm that foreign-government subsidies do to workers in other American industries.

All in all, international trade is a real mess. (So is domestic trade, given the myriad distortions wrought by taxes and regulations.) But it’s fair to say that some American workers are harmed by what can only be called unfair practices in international trade. The harm to them isn’t offset by the gains to other Americans. Only an economist or socialist would think otherwise.

In sum, I have come around to Mr. Trump’s view of this issue. Free trade should be conducted on a level playing field. Given that that won’t happen soon — if ever — what should be done for American workers who are harmed by unfair trade? Stay tuned.