For decades, the Beltway offered America an unflinching bipartisan consensus: Free trade, and all of its consequences, is an unmitigated good. Any deficiencies that might arise as are ultimately for the best.
But the American people weren’t buying what Washington, D.C., was selling.
President Donald Trump’s simple idea on trade is that we live in a world of nations competing for power, strength, and prestige. Thus, the political concerns associated with international trade ought to take precedence over economic considerations. The nation does not serve the economy; the economy serves the nation.
Free trade, therefore, is not a principle but a policy. It can be good or bad depending on the situation. It must be subject to the national interest.
Consider China: Our biggest competitor and economic counterpart places enormous tariffs on U.S. goods and the U.S. ran a trade deficit of $375 billion in the last year alone. And many of the American dollars that China receives as a result of this deficit are used to purchase U.S. debt and U.S. assets.
China also engages in mass-scale intellectual property theft (both outright and through coercive government regulation), copyright infringement, dumping, and currency manipulation. China is the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world and Chinese vegetable protein imports were so laden with toxic chemicals that the Food and Drug Administration issued a recall in 2007.
China also uses the U.S.’s flexible free trade policies to flood our nation with drugs. Fentanyl, an opioid roughly 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, is the deadliest drug in the U.S. and killed nearly 30,000 Americans in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A 2017 congressional report identified China as the primary source of origin for fentanyl in the U.S. Chinese fentanyl makes its way into the U.S. in three primary ways: China ships the drug into the U.S. directly, smuggles it in through Canada and Mexico, or sends the raw chemicals (and sometimes lab infrastructure) to Mexican drug cartels to then disperse.
A yearly $800 billion trade deficit in goods worldwide has hollowed out the manufacturing base which once catapulted the United States to the the status of a world power. Is this what free trade looks like?
The men who transformed America into an industrial superpower didn’t think so. The American founders saw the need for the protection of domestic industry, and the second bill ever passed by Congress, the tariff of 1789, stated that its explicit goal was the “encouragement and protection of manufactures.”
America’s greatest statesmen drew upon the founders’ wisdom. Henry Clay imagined his “American System” of tariffs, domestic commerce, and internal improvements to ensure domestic vitality. Honest Abe warned in an aside conversation that “abandonment of the protective policy by the American government [will] produce want and ruin among our people.” And William McKinley, a man from whom the president draws great inspiration, invoked the first law of nature in his defense of protectionist measures: the law of self-preservation.
Protectionism has long been a part of the great Republican tradition. With domestic protection in mind, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge ushered the United States into the “Roaring 20’s.” Even Ronald Reagan turned to tariffs to save the U.S. auto industry from Japanese competition.
But when NAFTA went into effect in 1994 the U.S. lost is economic advantage. Since then, the U.S. has bought $1.1 trillion more in goods from Mexico than it has sold, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the U.S. became vulnerable. America bought $4.4 trillion more in goods from China than it has sold, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.
American politicians are hollowing out the heartland, wasting away our country’s domestic industry, undermining our industrial base, and lowering American wages. All for cheaper foreign trinkets. It’s reminiscent of Voltaire’s “Candide,” in which the main character’s mentor, Dr. Pangloss, maintains an illogical optimism, telling Candide not to worry despite his many misfortunes. Regardless of what might happen, Pangloss says, and as bad as it might seem, this is the best possible scenario in the best of all possible worlds.
What Voltaire proposed mockingly, through Pangloss, the free traders say with a straight face.
But the American people aren’t buying what they’re selling.
Garrsion E. Grisedale is a senior studying politics.