This term has come to elicit animosity in people of nearly all political and economic persuasions. Why these different persuasions oppose free trade varies. But typically, the arguments are that it hurts American workers, leads to a reduction in American jobs, leads to falling wages, environmental destruction yada yada yada. Basically, free trade is the worst thing imaginable.
And though, from an ethical and practical standpoint, this is clearly not the case, that’s not what I want to write about here. Because even if all those drawbacks to free trade were true, it’s not free trade per se that is causing them. It’s the choices of individual consumers.
Having free trade between countries doesn’t force anyone to do anything. It simply makes it easier for businesses to sell or manufacture goods in a foreign country, and for consumers to get cheaper stuff. But it doesn’t mandate that they must do those things.
All free trade does is broaden the amount of available choices to everyone in the economy. Nothing more.
It doesn’t allow for prohibitive or protectionist government policies, but it doesn’t force action on the part of anyone. Free trade merely levels the playing field and better allows consumers and producers to satisfy their needs and wants. It’s consumer preference that drives these ostensible negative effects of free trade.
If you want to look at who is guilty for manufacturing jobs leaving the United States, or what caused wages of some low-skilled jobs to fall, you need only look into the mirror.
Companies send their jobs to other countries because YOU, the consumer, value lower prices over American jobs.
YOU don’t want to put in the extra money to buy American.
YOU don’t want to take the time insure what you are buying was made by American hands.
YOU aren’t committed enough to organize boycotts of businesses that send their jobs overseas or import capital goods from other countries.
To the extent that we still live a free society, consumer preference drives everything that private companies do. If enough people really cared about these alleged downsides then it would mean that the majority of companies would be producing every good in every order of production in the United States. This would undoubtedly lead to a huge increase in price and, in some cases, a drop in quality. But if that’s what the customer wants, that is what businesses will strive to produce.
This is the same story for huge, one-stop shopping stores like Walmart. YOU keep Walmart in business and force your Main Street market out of business. It is completely and 100 percent on YOU. If you really valued Main Street, your shopping habits would reflect that. But the vast majority of consumers don’t. They value cheap and convenient shopping more than anything else.
I should say that obviously if you do not like free trade or organizations like Walmart that benefit from it, and you choose not to shop there or any other company that does business abroad, more power to you. Those “YOUs” above do not apply to you. You are free to shop and do business with whoever you want based on your personal preferences. All you need to do is show the same respect to other people.
Free trade does no one any harm. Saying it does is a cowardly cop-out to avoid taking responsibility for your marketplace choices. Moreover, being anti-free trade does not mean you have to ban it. You just don’t have to take part in it. That is well within your rights and power.
But when you use the state to limit trade you are leaving the realm of ethical behavior. You are using government force to limit the choices of other individuals who may not be anti-free trade. You are preventing those people from fulfilling their preferences thus making their lives worse.
The simple solution to this is for YOU to stop being hypocritical and to stop trying to control the perfectly reasonable and ethical preferences of other people. If you are anti-trade then put in the time, effort, and money to prove it.
But don’t use the government, and don’t assume that your preferences are identical to everyone else’s.
Live your life and let others live theirs.