The Roots of Anti-Free Trade

The National Association of Manufacturers blogger Carter Wood thinks he knows why free trade has become a dirty word in the political world:

The rise of anti-trade sentiment is a complex one, but certainly electoral politics play a key role. Organized labor’s place in the economy has slipped dramatically as membership numbers fall (7.4 percent of private sector workforce is unionized) and global competition and technology place a premium on flexibility and adaptability — not labor’s strengths. But labor still wields tremendous political influence through organization and its millions of dollars in campaign spending. With many Democrats frustrated at being out of power in Congress for a decade, the organizational and financial support of labor (as well as anti-war “netroots” and leftwing activists) became irresistible. And labor has just a few demands.

How are cool economic arguments about the benefits of trade, no matter how persuasive AND empirical, supposed to overcome that bald political self-interest?

Chicken/egg, we know. Which came first, the unpopularity of trade or the rising political influence of anti-trade forces? After reading economist Bryan Caplan’s “Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies” we’re inclined to think the former — that with an anti-market, anti-foreign bias, voters tend to oppose trade. It takes hard work by advocates and political leaders to overcome that bias, to win the arguments on behalf of prosperity and trade. And when the leaders bail out because of electoral self-interest, the work becomes even harder.

So: A mix of deeply-rooted nativism with interest-group politics. Although, as he implies, organized labor’s opposition to free trade might, itself, be rooted in nativism and not a sharp-pencil calculation of labor’s self-interest.

Who was the last political leader successfully to “overcome that bias, to win the arguments on behalf of prosperity and trade?” Click the video below for a brief journey in the Wayback Machine:

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