There’s a lot of things about the 2016 election that nobody saw coming, and one of them is that international trade policy is likely to be a major issue in the presidential campaign. What’s more, the positions of the parties will be the reverse of what you might have expected: Republicans, who claim to stand for free markets, are likely to nominate a crude protectionist, leaving Democrats, with their skepticism about untrammeled markets, as the de facto defenders of relatively open trade.
But this isn’t as peculiar a development as it seems. Rhetorical claims aside, Republicans have long tended in practice to be more protectionist than Democrats. And there’s a reason for that difference. It’s true that globalization puts downward pressure on the wages of many workers – but progressives can offer a variety of responses to that pressure, whereas on the right, protectionism is all they’ve got.
When I say that Republicans have been more protectionist than Democrats, I’m not talking about the distant past, about the high-tariff policies of the Gilded Age; I’m talking about modern Republican presidents, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Reagan, after all, imposed an import quota on automobiles that ended up costing consumers billions of dollars. And Bush imposed tariffs on steel that were in clear violation of international agreements, only to back down after the European Union threatened to impose retaliatory sanctions.
Actually, the latter episode should be an object lesson for anyone talking tough about trade. The Bush administration suffered from a bad case of superpower delusion, a belief that America could dictate events throughout the world. The falseness of that belief was most spectacularly demonstrated by the debacle in Iraq. But the reckoning came even sooner on trade, an area where other players, Europe in particular, have just as much power as we do.
Nor is the threat of retaliation the only factor that should deter any hard protectionist turn. There’s also the collateral damage such a turn would inflict on poor countries. It’s probably bad politics to talk right now about what a trade war would do to, say, Bangladesh. But any responsible future president would have to think hard about such matters.
Then again, we might be talking about President Trump.
But back to the broader issue of how to help workers pressured by the global economy.
Serious economic analysis has never supported the Panglossian view of trade as win-win for everyone that is popular in elite circles: growing trade can indeed hurt many people, and for the past few decades globalization has probably been, on net, a depressing force for the majority of U.S. workers.
But protectionism isn’t the only way to fight that downward pressure. In fact, many of the bad things we associate with globalization in America were political choices, not necessary consequences – and they didn’t happen in other advanced countries, even though those countries faced the same global forces we did.
Consider, for example, the case of Denmark, which Bernie Sanders famously held up as a role model. As a member of the European Union, Denmark is subject to the same global trade agreements as we are – and while it doesn’t have a free-trade agreement with Mexico, there are plenty of low-wage workers in eastern and southern Europe. Yet Denmark has much lower inequality than we do. Why?
Part of the answer is that workers in Denmark, two-thirds of whom are unionized, still have a lot of bargaining power. If U.S. corporations were able to use the threat of imports to smash unions, it was only because our political environment supported union-busting. Even Canada, right next door, has seen nothing like the union collapse that took place here.
And the rest of the answer is that Denmark (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) has a much stronger social safety net than we do. In America, we’re constantly told that global competition means that we can’t even afford even the safety net we have; strange to say, other rich countries don’t seem to have that problem.
What all this means, as I said, is that the Democratic nominee won’t have to engage in saber-rattling over trade. She (yes, it’s still overwhelmingly likely to be Hillary Clinton) will, rightly, express skepticism about future trade deals, but she will be able to address the problems of working families without engaging in irresponsible trash talk about the world trade system. The Republican nominee won’t.
And there’s a lesson here that goes beyond this election. If you’re generally a supporter of open world markets – which you should be, mainly because market access is so important to poor countries – you need to know that whatever they may say, politicians who espouse rigid free-market ideology are not on your side.