Commentary

Losses Are from Fear, Not Foreign Trade

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared on Marketplace on October 22, 2007.

Are Americans so averse to loss that we’ll give up the gains from trade?

Recent polls suggest that American attitudes toward trade are lagging — behind France, behind communist China, behind socialist Venezuela and way behind impoverished but trade-happy Kenya.

This despite the fact that past American anxieties about trade and globalization never panned out. The U.S. remains the world’s trade colossus and enjoys a level of prosperity second to none.

Those who insist that globalization is foisted upon the world’s unwilling poor by rapacious capitalists have it backwards. The Chinese and Indians, who are enjoying a boom in living standards thanks to trade, are upbeat about the forces of global capitalism.

African nations, looking to success in Asia, seem keen to get in on the action. Attitudes toward trade, corporations and capitalism are nothing less than glowing in the poor Ivory Coast.

But the United States, which imports and exports more goods than any other country on Earth, and boasts the highest average income of the countries polled, shows the least support for trade. What gives?

The world’s poor know what it looks like to get ahead: it looks like America. But rich Americans, already pushing the frontier of progress, have trouble picturing further prosperity. So we focus instead on all we might lose. American kids on bikes wear more body armor than the troops in Fallujah. And if the family dog dies from tainted Chinese dog food, well, then shut down the ports.

Rattled by a failed war and a disapproving world, we’re all too willing to withdraw and crouch defensively. But as we’ve known for centuries, protectionism doesn’t protect.

And as a wise man once said, if goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will. The developing world is more eager than ever to trade. Now is not the time to encourage the alternative.

Media Appearance Will Wilkinson discusses American perception of foreign trade on Marketplace (October 22, 2007) [Real Media, MP3]

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.