The Reagan Record on Trade: Rhetoric vs. Reality

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When President Reagan imposed a 100 percent tariff onselected Japanese electronics in 1987, he and the press gavethe impression that this was an act of desperation. Picturedwas a long-forbearing president whose patience was exhaustedby the recalcitrant and conniving Japanese. After tryingfor years to elicit some fairness out of them, went the story,the usually good-natured president had finally had enough.

When newspapers and television networks announced thetariffs, the media reminded the public that such restraintswere imposed by a staunch free trader. The less-than-subtlemessage was that if "Free Trader" Ronald Reagan thought thetariff necessary, then Japan surely deserved it. After morethan seven years in office, Ronald Reagan is still widelyregarded as a devoted free trader. A typical reference isthat of Mark Shields, a Washington Post columnist, to Reagan's"blind devotion to the doctrine of free trade."(1)

If President Reagan has a devotion to free trade, itsurely must be blind, because he has been off the mark mostof the time. Only short memories and a refusal to believeone's own eyes would account for the view that PresidentReagan is a free trader. Calling oneself a free trader isnot the same thing as being a free trader. Nor does a free-trade position mean that the president, but not Congress,should have the power to impose trade sanctions. Instead,a president deserves the title of free trader only if hisefforts demonstrate an attempt to remove trade barriers athome and prevent the imposition of new ones.

By this standard, the Reagan administration has failedto promote free trade. Ronald Reagan by his actions hasbecome the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover,the heavyweight champion of protectionists.

Sheldon L. Richman

Sheldon L. Richman is the director of public affairs at the Institute for Humane Studies.