Let's Boost Policy Discourse By Pushing Back Against Protectionism
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Let's Boost Policy Discourse By Pushing Back Against Protectionism
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Agnostic? Unaware? Indecisive? Disgruntled? Whatever the case may be, the American public seems certainly uncertain about the role trade should play in America’s future. Should America’s leaders follow suit? Play into the public’s wavering sentiment? Or is there a better way forward?

The body politic is in a surly and protectionist mood, which is illustrated by two recent surveys. Both reveal that Americans have deep misconceptions and misgivings about international trade, especially with China. However, one of the studies suggests a path toward increasing the public’s understanding of the issue. A better-informed electorate would make possible a higher quality and more nuanced public discussion on trade. Building understanding across society could pave the way to reforming trade policies so they help our economy rather than hurt it.

The first, “A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class – What Americans Think,” is the 2021 edition of a comprehensive poll undertaken every two years by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It was conducted in July among a representative national sample of over 2,000 adults.

The results are stark: “majorities favor increasing tariffs on products imported from China (62%) and significantly reducing trade between the two countries, even if this leads to greater costs for American consumers (57%).” Such a high degree of anti-China sentiment suggests most Americans are not aware that the United States already imposes considerably higher tariffs on goods from China than from any other major trading partner. And they have cost Americans dearly, while doing little to alter China’s behavior.

As Scott Lincicome, a Cato senior fellow in economic studies, explains, “tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on Chinese imports harmed U.S. consumers and manufacturers, deterred investment (mainly due to uncertainty), lowered U.S. GDP growth, and hurt U.S. exporters (especially farmers but also U.S. manufacturers that used Chinese inputs).”

The Chicago Council study reflects in part the effects of unwise policymaking on public attitudes. Candidate Joe Biden argued tariffs weren’t good for America. Unfortunately, he did an about-face after the election. His administration has assiduously maintained and defended Trump’s tariffs, while Biden himself has said China was “going to eat our lunch.” Capturing the pre-Halloween spirit, commentator Fareed Zakaria summed up the mood: “Protectionism has become one of those zombie ideas that continue to move forward despite all the evidence showing them to be wrong.”

The Chicago Council poll likely provides an accurate reflection of what Americans think of China. As with many other issues important to governance, there’s understandably a certain amount of unfamiliarity within society on trade topics. Rather than Biden’s approach of following policies that sustain and exploit anti-trade biases, a better role for America’s political leaders would be to engage thoughtfully with the public on these complicated and nonintuitive issues, and to lead with pro-trade policies that prove the benefits of economic openness. 

The second survey takes a step in that direction. An organization called “Listening for America” recently released a report based on three years of focus groups with nearly 1,000 participants that examined American attitudes toward trade. Similar to the Chicago Council, Listening for America found that views on trade and trade agreements were relatively negative.

However, they also determined that providing additional information to the focus groups could be helpful: “One of the most impactful aspects of these discussions included debunking myths about trade.”

The study’s authors explain: “For example, a majority of the discussion participants were surprised to find that China is not in fact the top US trading partner. Another myth posited that trade was entirely to blame for manufacturing job loss, but in truth, automation is considered a main cause.”

The survey team goes on to highlight the constructive reaction of focus group members: “Challenging their previously held beliefs and providing data to better understand the reality was engaging, educational, and overall fueled richer discussions, which led to greater appreciation for the positive role trade can play.”

Is it possible to improve America’s comfort level with two-way trade? Perhaps. But additional efforts will be required to persuade people in thoughtful and respectful ways.

Leaders in business and academia can play a role by highlighting how trade helps their firms and provides employment to 40 million workers – more than a quarter of all jobs in the country. Public officials – including the president – have a special responsibility to emphasize the benefits of international trade.

Rather than pandering to nationalistic prejudices by claiming other nations are taking advantage of us, politicians should point out that imports and exports both contribute to American prosperity. Except for rare instances in which legitimate national security concerns justify prohibiting a transaction, trade is a win-win proposition for both sides.

Americans from all walks stand to benefit from increased engagement with the dynamic global economy. America should embrace those opportunities, not shy away from them based on protectionist instincts and egged on by isolationist rhetoric. It’s time to raise the quality of America’s trade policy discourse and push back against protectionism.

Dan Pearson, a former chairman of the U.S. International Trade Commission, is a trade policy fellow at Americans for Prosperity.

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