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Sustainable trade

Support for free trade slipping in the U.S.

Published 13 April 2016 | 2 minute read

A recent Bloomberg Politics national poll in the United States shows a surprisingly strong tide of opposition to free trade. Almost two-thirds of respondents were in favor of placing greater restrictions on imports rather than fewer.

The argument that free trade benefits consumers by providing access to cheaper imported products appeared to carry little weight. Eighty-two percent said they’d be willing to pay “a little bit more” for US manufactured merchandise. And the last major free trade agreement entered into by the US – the NAFTA agreement – was seen mostly in negative terms. A plurality of 44% indicated that NAFTA has been bad for the US economy, while only 29% saw it as positive. The remaining 27% offered no opinion.

Opposition to free trade cuts across all lines – political, race, gender, education, and income

The poll also revealed a deep suspicion of foreign direct investment.  Sixty-eight percent felt that an American-owned factory employing 1,000 workers would be better for their community than a Chinese-owned factory employing 2,000 workers.

Free trade has traditionally enjoyed broad support across American society, so the Bloomberg poll marks a potentially significant shift in sentiment, if the trend lines continue to be borne out in future polling.

Several points are worth reflecting on:

  • What is behind the declining support for free trade?
  • Does the messaging on the benefits of free trade need to be improved?
  • Is free trade actually less beneficial than its proponents have argued?
  • Are the problems not so much with trade in general, but rather the specific free trade agreements that have been negotiated?
  • If the US — the historical driving force behind the multilateral trade system – begins to weaken in its commitment to free trade, where is the global trading system headed?

Future posts will attempt to tackle at least some of these issues.

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Stephen Olson

From 2014 to January 2024, Mr. Olson was a Senior Research Fellow of the Hinrich Foundation. Mr. Olson began his career in Washington DC as an international trade negotiator and served on the US negotiating team for the NAFTA negotiations.

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