Free Trade Ad Nauseam

NEW YORK – So much has been written, by so many, against the muddled ideas that have now overwhelmed good sense on trade policy in the United States government that one wonders whether there is anything left to say. Yet it is worth recalling what Pierre-Joseph Proudhon reportedly told the Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen: “And do you imagine that once a thing has been said, it is enough?....It has to be dinned into people, it has to be repeated over and over again.”

What we need now is a primer on the major misconceptions in the hope that, unlike Gresham’s Law, which says that bad money drives out good money, good economics will drive out bad economics. Four, in particular need to be corrected.

The first misconception is that exports create jobs, while imports do not – a fallacy that the great trade economist Harry Johnson traced to mercantilism, and which the US has resurrected. In fact, in a world where parts and components come from everywhere, interference with imports imperils competitiveness. The success of parcel-delivery companies, for example, depends on imports, which must be brought from the borders inland, as well as on exports.

Second, the credo “Trade, not aid” has given way to the mistaken belief that trade matters less than foreign assistance. The labor constituency, ever fearful of import competition, has undermined trade policy. It has also shifted aid policy in directions that assign priority to areas where the returns to US efforts are relatively minuscule.