December 13, 1999
The Mystical Power of Free Trade
Some people find it hard to believe it really works, but it does
BY MICHAEL KINSLEY
Free trade is always a hard sell. In all of social science, the proposition that comes closest to being scientific, in terms of being theoretically provable and true in real life, is that a society benefits from allowing its citizens to buy what they wish--even from foreigners. But people resist this conclusion, sometimes violently, as in Seattle last week. Why?
A couple of reasons. First, the principle of free trade may be true, but it's not obviously true. In fact, it's counterintuitive. If a factory shuts down because of a flood of cheap foreign products, how is that good? If middle-class Americans find themselves competing with foreigners being paid practically nothing and living in squalor, how can this send Americans' standard of living up and not down? If another nation is willing to pollute its air and water in order to produce goods for sale in the global economy, how can America join that economy and still hope to keep its own air and water clean?
There are answers to these questions, but they take a bit of background and a bit of persuading. Students of economics are led step by step through layers of reasoning until the moment they see the light. Skeptics think that the whole routine is like induction into a religious cult and that free trade is more like an article of religious faith than a sound policy recommendation. These skeptics are wrong, but their skepticism is understandable.
The other reason it's hard to sell free trade is that any given example tends to benefit a lot of people in small ways that are hard to identify and tends to harm a few people a lot in ways that are vividly evident. When that factory shuts down, the unemployed workers know they've suffered a loss, and they know why. And it's a big enough loss to stir them politically. It will affect their vote at least, if not cause them to march in the streets.
By contrast, budget-conscious clothes shoppers (maybe those same workers) who are able to save a few bucks on a new sweater are not likely to realize they are enjoying a bargain as a result of global trade or to take to the streets to defend their right to a cheap sweater. Or suppose the U.S. slaps a tariff on foreign sweaters and the foreign country retaliates by raising a tariff on something we're selling them--the people who would lose their jobs aren't even identifiable for sure, though for sure they exist. Likewise the people who lose jobs because shoppers who have to pay more for sweaters have less money to spend on other things.
It's by considering all these things--the risk of losing your job one way minus the risk of losing it another, the extra money you make if your industry is shielded from foreign competition minus the extra money you pay for goods and services that are protected--that you reach the conclusion that on average, free trade benefits us all. Yes, there are various economic theories about circumstances in which all this may not be true, but their authors win prizes precisely because the circumstances are unusual. In general, the numbers work irrespective of what policies other countries follow. They just get worse if one country's trade restrictions lead other countries to impose more of the same. Trouble is, who's got time for all that math?
Still, a half-century of general prosperity in the U.S. has created a climate of toleration, if not enthusiasm, for the free-trade gospel--mostly, indeed, as a gospel of our civic religion rather than out of anyone's buying the math. Alarm about imports tends to ebb and flow with the economy--less in good times, more in bad. So how, in the best times ever, did the World Trade Organization become the global bogeyman? No earnest college kid ever hitched across the country to carry a picket sign against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the WTO's predecessor, although its function was similar. It took decades for the CIA, the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations to achieve their places in the pantheon of political paranoia. The WTO has joined them in just four years. And it is despised across the entire political spectrum, whereas these other groups symbolize evil only to one political extreme or the other.
Part of the explanation is the special nature of our current prosperity, which is widening the income gap rather than narrowing it, as in the past. Part is the growth of global economic forces that are actually impinging on national sovereignty, even though it's the paranoid hysterics who say so. But the WTO isn't responsible for either of these trends, both of which are probably inevitable and neither of which undermines the basic case for free trade or for an organization empowered to promote trade through binding arbitration of trade disputes.
Maybe it's the name. If you call yourself the World Trade Organization, you can't complain much if people dial your 800 number and gripe about world trade. If a bunch of heads of government plan a triumphalist self-celebration in Seattle, you can't blame party poopers for showing up to horn in on the publicity. But really, the WTO is O.K. Do the math. Or take it on faith