Free Trade Is For Patriots

Samuel Gregg, The Stream

Over the past four years, Americans have turned against free trade. A majority now see free trade as bad for America. The biggest growth in anti-free trade feeling has occurred among Republicans and conservatives.

There are many reasons for this shift. For one thing, not all Americans immediately win from the opening of markets. Another problem is free trade’s politically-poisonous association with the Davos internationalista set.

That’s why it’s so vital for those who believe in free trade to ground this belief in love of country. American protectionists have always wrapped themselves in the Stars and Stripes. To support tariffs and subsidies, they say, means you’re a patriot. To favor free trade, the argument goes, implies that you care more about Japan than West Virginian coal miners. President John Quincy Adam’s Secretary of State, Henry Clay was an arch-protectionist. He portrayed free trade as a way for the British to re-colonize the United States!

But American protectionists haven’t played the patriotism card for petty reasons. They know that Americans don’t view love of country as crude and outdated. Americans are still patriotic compared to, say, most West Europeans. Over half of Americans own a flag.

That’s why free traders need to explain that free trade is the true patriotic choice.

Protectionism is all about Special Interests

It’s ironic that so many people link protectionism with patriotism. After all, tariffs and subsidies aren’t designed to help America as a whole. Instead they favor key industries — even certain firms.

Take a look at what’s called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States. This consists of 22 Sections, 99 Chapters, and several annexes. Talk about “byzantine.” Several different tariffs may apply to the same product in different forms. Even a product as simple as mineral water gets snared in its net. There’s no logic to this. It likely reflects the fact that producers of one type of mineral water had better lobbyists than another.

How does this help America? It doesn’t. It just means that consumers pay more for some types of mineral water than others — for no good reason.

The steel industry also shows how the protectionist racket helps the few rather than the many. For 40 years, such policies have sheltered American steel producers from foreign rivals. To what effect? They have pushed up steel prices in the US.

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