SHARE

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. 

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Well stated. Free Trade is only pos­sible if both sides are playing by the same rules. China has sub­si­dized it’s indus­tries and pro­tected them with Tariffs. Don’t think the short term gains Amer­icans realize from lower prices on imported goods make up for the long term pain of lost jobs and indus­tries. Once an industry is lost it’s almost impos­sible to bring it back.

    Free Trade is the goal, but we need trans­parency and good inten­tions on both sides to make it work. China needs to stop letting their industry steal intel­lectual property, America relies a great deal on the inno­vation of it’s indus­tries to make their way in the world. My own company has been the victim of intel­lectual property theft in China and on more than one occasion. Enough!