The Progressive Case Against Protectionism



Kimberly Clausing | Foreign Affairs

It has almost become the new Washington consensus: decades of growing economic openness have hurt American workers, increased inequality, and gutted the middle class, and new restrictions on trade and immigration can work to reverse the damage. This view is a near reversal of the bipartisan consensus in favor of openness to the world that defined U.S. economic policy for decades. From the end of World War II on, under both Democratic and Republican control, Congress and the White House consistently favored free trade and relatively unrestrictive immigration policies. Candidates would make protectionist noises to appease various constituencies from time to time, but by and large, such rhetoric was confined to the margins. Almost never did it translate into actual policy.

Then came the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump found a wide audience when he identified the chief enemy of the American worker as foreigners: trading partners that had struck disastrous trade agreements with Washington and immigrants who were taking jobs from native-born Americans. Everyday workers, Trump alleged, had been let down by a political class beholden to globalist economic ideas. In office, he has followed through on his nationalist agenda, withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (tpp) and routinely levying higher tariffs on trading partners. On immigration, he has implemented draconian policies against asylum seekers at the border and undocumented immigrants within the United States, as well as reducing quotas for legal immigrants and slowing down the processing of their applications.

But Trump has not been alone in his battle against economic openness. During the 2016 campaign, he was joined in his calls for protectionism by the Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, who also blamed bad trade agreements for the plight of the American worker. Even the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state had championed the tpp, was forced by political necessity to abandon her earlier support for the agreement. Democrats have not, fortunately, mimicked Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, but when it comes to free trade, their support has often been lukewarm at best. While some Democrats have criticized Trump’s counterproductive tariffs and disruptive trade wars, many of them hesitate when asked if they would repudiate the administration’s trade policies, especially with respect to China. The political winds have shifted; now, it seems as if those who purport to sympathize with workers and stand up for the middle class must also question the merits of economic openness.

American workers have indeed been left behind, but open economic policies remain in their best interest: by reducing prices for consumers and companies, free trade helps workers more than it hurts them, and by creating jobs, offering complementary skills, and paying taxes, so do immigrants. Instead of hawking discredited nationalist economic ideas, politicians seeking to improve Americans’ economic lot-especially progressives focused on reducing inequality and rebuilding the middle class-should be looking to domestic policy to address workers’ needs, while also improving trade agreements and increasing immigration. That, not tariffs and walls, is what it will take to improve the plight of regular Americans.

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