May 24, 2018 12:25PM

Free Trade Is Good for Both Americans and Non‐​Americans

Trade headlines are getting more and more absurd. The Commerce Department apparently will investigate whether car imports impair national security and thus require a 25% tariff, which one trade lawyer said would prompt “pant-wetting laughter — followed by retaliation” among U.S. trading partners. Although maybe, as the linked article suggests, this is all just to put pressure on Mexico during the NAFTA talks, so who knows if it means anything. It's very hard to say what is going on or where any of this is going. Perhaps, then, this would be a good time to take a break from the headlines and consider some more general trade issues.

I was reading a recent New Yorker article entitled "Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy?" and, not surprisingly, I came across a lot of points that irritated me. In crafting a letter to the editor, it occurred to me that if I wanted it published, it would be better to focus on just one issue rather than send them a long list of complaints. Here's the letter I sent, as published:

In Caleb Crain’s essay about whether capitalism poses a threat to democracy, he discusses Robert Kuttner’s views on the impact of free trade but leaves out a key consideration (Books, May 14th). Beyond the impact that free trade has on Americans, its benefits for the developing world should not be ignored. Hundreds of millions of people have been helped out of poverty by an American-led system of trade liberalization. Perhaps this will not convince American voters, but it should count for something.

That was the version as edited by the New Yorker. The letter I sent was a little different, in that I had a parenthetical as follows: "Perhaps this will not convince American voters (although if it were ever pointed out to them, they might approve), ... "

One of the things Donald Trump has shown us is that you can say unorthodox things and change the debate, as it turns out people believe things we were not aware of. This can be a bad thing, but I can imagine that it might also be a good thing. What if we had a politician who explained how Americans benefited from free trade, and then also noted that free trade had helped bring hundreds of millions of people in other countries out of poverty. Isn't it likely that many people would think that was pretty good? Couldn't that actually generate support for free trade?

Of course, there may be a group of people that doesn't care about things that happen outside of the United States, and are suspicious that helping non-Americans must mean hurting Americans. But don't most people care a little about what happens elsewhere? I hope so, but I suppose we'll never know, because the issue of helping others through free trade is almost never mentioned. It's just not a significant part of the public debate. As a result, we really have no idea if Americans care about this, and whether it could generate more support for free trade. It would be nice if someone gave this a try, though. Trump has shown us that unorthodox strategies can work. If someone tried out a positive unorthodox message, we might be pleasantly surprised by the results.