Tanner: Trump’s trade critics don’t offer better options

By Michael D. Tanner |

Democrats running for president have certainly not hesitated to criticize President Trump’s trade policies.

There is a good reason for the rhetoric. Several recent studies, from researchers at Harvard, Columbia, the IMF, and two different branches of the Federal Reserve, have all concluded that the tariffs imposed by President Trump on China and others have indeed hurt American consumers and threatened economic growth domestically and internationally. For instance, scholars at Columbia, Princeton, and the New York Fed found that the Trump tariffs had reduced U.S. real income by $1.4 billion per month by the end of 2018.

In response — or perhaps just because Americans have a reactive response to any Trump policy — polls suggest that support for free trade is on the rise. A Monmouth poll found that 52 percent of Americans in 2018 think free-trade agreements are good for the United States, a dramatic increase when compared to 24 percent in 2015.

Democrats are right to disagree with Trump. Too bad they don’t bring any good ideas to the table.

But what exactly are the Democratic presidential candidates proposing as an alternative? Their policies — as opposed to their words — don’t seem all that different. In fact, some of the Democratic plans may be even more restrictive.

For example, many experts believe that the best way to restrain China would be to join with our regional allies in some sort of block, similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And there is reason to believe that our allies would be happy to have us join the pact. But with the exception of extreme long-shot Representative John Delaney, every major Democratic candidate either joins Trump in opposing the TPP or is highly critical of the current negotiation. Even former vice president Joe Biden won’t commit to the treaty his administration negotiated.

Biden’s change in position is just his latest concession to the special interests and unions that dominate the Democratic primaries. He once voted for normal trade relations in China, NAFTA, and pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but no longer.

Nor is it just the TPP that Democrats oppose. Like Trump, most of the major Democrats oppose NAFTA. But, with the exception of Beto O’Rourke, they also oppose Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA (renamed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA). Most Democrats have also opposed other, bilateral trade deals, such as those with Korea and Colombia.

The left flank of the Democratic party is even more anti-trade. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, wants the focus of trade to be on labor, the environment, and, ironically, consumers. She wants the U.S. to trade only with countries that have signed the Paris Agreement and meet onerous human-rights and labor standards.

This policy would fall most heavily on poor nations who can least afford costly environmental or labor upgrades. Countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala would be devastated, sending a new flood of refugees streaming toward our border.

And Bernie Sanders’s opinions are quite similar to Warren’s. Both of them are in favor of steel and aluminum tariffs and oppose all current trade deals. Sanders, like Warren, wants all future negotiations to be centered around labor, the environment, and human rights.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The Left has long opposed free trade. After all, the ability to buy and sell to whomever you wish is the antithesis of central planning.

Unfortunately, though, for those of us who believe in the free market, the 2020 race continues to offer less of a choice, and more of an echo.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.

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