The complexities of the global economy make simplistic solutions for the problems caused by offshoring and dumping and unfettered immigration, like “MORE EDUCATION!” a bit silly. And even defining terms is difficult. Many people around here are for free trade as imagined in textbooks, but when that trade is used as a weapon the way China has for the last two generations it becomes problematic.
David Ricardo’s, and more recently Paul Samuelson’s “comparative advantage” is a powerful idea, and one that is axiomatic. But when that advantage is driven by anti-freedom policies that are antithetical to the idea of free trade, then comparative advantage breaks down. Slave labor in Chinese factories, uncontrolled pollution, shockingly unsafe work environments and a host of other differences between Western economies and China’s make the elegant concept of free trade a bit naive.
Should America Still Believe in Free Markets?
America’s evolving trade war is an expression of a broader frustration in the country with free markets. It’s not just Trump voters who are fed up. A 2020 Institute of Politics poll of Americans aged 18 to 29, who tend to skew Democratic, found fewer than half with a favorable view of capitalism. Where once America was synonymous with free markets—because they embodied individualism, that that most archetypal of American values—today we see the specters of economic nationalism and even socialism, although the precise meaning of these terms, even among their proponents, remains contested.
The author veers off into a discussion of “human capital,” and of course that means spending more money on education, because the trillions we have already spent just aren’t enough. But he does explain some of the issues, and it’s worth a read.
But free trade is still the best form of economic transaction, it’s just that it has to be free for all involved. That means that the millions of Chinese workers who have no choice because the Chinese government controls where they live, or simply enslaves them makes the current scheme of trade between China and the rest of the world inherently unfair and unfree.
President Trump recognizes that the economic playing field is tilted in China’s favor, and he is willing to accept some local and temporary distortions of trade in order to improve the long-term prospects for the American economy. And contrary to the pontifications of the Left, and even many on the Right, his actions are not the first shots of a new cold war. China began that war a long time ago, with the tacit approval of the GOPe and much of corporate America. President Trump is simply recognizing the reality of an noncompetitive situation and working to resolve it in America’s favor. And that means in the American worker’s favor.
One of the clear benefits of globalism is the world economy’s ability rapidly to redirect resources. The idea that China is the only economy large enough to handle the needs of the world for consumer and business goods is a canard. Just ask the smaller countries in the region whether they would like a shot at some of China’s business!