Have Americans Turned against Free Trade?

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll would seem to say yes. In a story over the weekend under the headline, “Americans Sour on Trade,” the Journal reports:

more than half of those surveyed, 53%, said free-trade agreements have hurt the U.S. That is up from 46% three years ago and 32% in 1999.

One plausible explanation for the sour mood toward trade is the business cycle. 1999 was near the peak of the long boom of the 1990s, when Americans were feeling good about just about everything. Even three years ago, the stock market was at a record high and unemployment was below 5 percent. In this light, trade is another casualty of the lingering recession, not a cause as many trade critics want to argue.

“Outsourcing” was a major source of anxiety in the poll. Americans overwhelming believe outsourcing of production and manufacturing work to other countries is a reason why the economy is struggling and new jobs are not being created. This collective attitude is more reflective of the complaints people hear in the media than of any hard reality on the ground.

As I document in my 2009 Cato book, Mad about Trade, only about 3 percent of job displacement in the United States can be blamed on trade. (See pp. 31-33.) For every one person in the unemployment line because of imports or outsourcing, there are 30 people who have been  displaced from their jobs by technology, domestic competition, changing consumer tastes, or the general business cycle.

Despite the popular worries, outsourcing is more likely to attract business to the United States than send it overseas. Year after year, more direct manufacturing investment flows into the United States than out to other countries. Year after year, Americans sell more “business and professional services” to customers abroad than they buy.

The facts are on the side of expanding the freedom of Americans to trade and invest with people in other countries. What is lacking are political leaders in Washington who will stand up for the broader national interest of our country against the special interests who are exploiting anxiety about the economy to trash trade.