Opinion: Look, Americans like free trade again


After a long succession of presidents who believed in the benefits of lowering trade barriers and entering multilateral trade agreements, the United States got one who decidedly does not. So what happens to public opinion? It moves more strongly in favor of free trade.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 adults published Sunday found surging support for the concept of free trade, with 64% of those surveyed agreeing that free trade was good for America because it opens markets — and because there’s no avoiding globalization. Only 27% agreed with the alternative in the survey, which was that free trade is bad because it hurts key industries and doesn’t necessarily create better jobs.

Granted, there’s a lot of space between those two arguments. I am firmly in the free-trade camp because I think increased trade helps both sides of the equation — the exporting country and the importing country. But you have to concede that there are downsides too, as jobs are both created and lost. There’s also the issue of how to enforce trade agreements effectively in the face of mercantilist systems such as China’s.

Regardless, it makes sense that support for free trade has grown in recent years. The Trump administration’s aggressive use of tariffs has cast us back into the bad old days of tit-for-tat trade fights, with U.S. tariffs raising the cost of many imported goods and components and retaliatory moves by foreign countries hurting U.S. exporters. To paraphrase the old Gallo slogan, California wine growers may be wondering if they’ll sell no wine to China, period.


This is why the United States has pushed trading partners worldwide to stop trying to use tariffs and other protectionist policies to try to advance their own interests. A good trade deal leads, on net, to all sides winning. A trade war produces nothing but losers, as we’re seeing now with the global economy teetering and U.S. bond markets sending worrisome signals about a looming recession.

Voters and their elected representatives should remember this lesson the next time a deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes up for approval, assuming we get a do-over on that unforced error.