At the end of June, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump made a fiery speech about trade in Pittsburgh. Using many of Bernie Sanders’ talking points on the subject, Trump said, among others, that he would hold China accountable for the manipulation of its currency and unfair trade practices, withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Trade vs. Trade Treaties
There is some wisdom on Trump’s part about NAFTA. This agreement would deserve the label “bureaucratic agreement on trade” rather than “free trade agreement.”
NAFTA is more about bureaucratic trade agreement than free trade agreement. For example, Annex 313 states that Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey can only be called as such (and be sold) if they are produced in Tennessee “in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States governing the manufacture of Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey.”
The same rule applies to Canadian Whisky in Canada and Tequila and Mezcal in Mexico. Annex 703.2.A.4, on its side, contains a truckload of products which are exempted from free trade, including Canada’s milk supply management which may cost the average family $267 a year.
Trump is also right about being hesitant to support the TPP. What has leaked out of it shows that the agreement has more to do about protecting intellectual property rather than genuine trade liberalization. Such protection would stifle innovation and slow economic growth – just imagine if there had been a patent on the wheel or iron casting when it was first invented.
Fairness is Buying What You Want from Wherever
However, Donald Trump is wrong to advocate for “fair” trade. In his platform he calls for a level playing field in order to have a “fairer” trading relationship with China, known for its heavy top-down approach on foreign businesses.
This amounts to protectionism that could set off a very costly trade war. American consumers will pay the price – a form of tax. It could set off a deep recession. When you consider the stakes here, you see that all of Trump’s valid complaints about trade treaties are designed to bring about something that is even worse.
If Trump's goal is really to "make America great again," he should move his focus from China to unilateral free trade.If, however, Trump’s goal is really to “make America great again,” then he should not be caring about China’s trade practices, but embracing unilateral free trade.
Of course there would be unavoidable, short-term pain with job losses in industries that cannot compete with China and other industries. The steel industry, for example, would not be protected by the recently enabled 266-percent tariff imposed on Chinese steel and would shed many jobs.
However, people using steel (for construction, manufacturing, etc.) would save so much money by being able to import cheaper steel. This surplus money will not evaporate; it will return in the economy in the form of savings, job creation, and economic growth.
This is not trade theory: unilateral free trade has successfully happened. Famous French liberal Frédéric Bastiat has abundantly talked about England turning to unilateral free trade and how it helped the country become even richer. It even “gave them bread” during a bad harvest 1847 thanks to wheat imports.
By walking down this “bold path,” to quote minister Peel who enacted free trade, America would truly be great. Government would stop subsidizing agriculture in every single form, thereby not only improving the quality of the water supply, but also reversing the contentious debate about undocumented Mexicans whose livelihood was destroyed by U.S. corn subsidies. Capital resources would be allocated in a more efficient way according to supply and demand – it might still be farming, but it could become manufacturing, mining, or even services – and save an average of $6.1 billion per year until 2019.
Trade liberalization, combined with Trump’s promises to lower business income tax to 15 percent and tackle the deficit and debt, would truly “make America great again.” Because after the unavoidable short-term pain of adjusting to new incentives, Americans will get back to work and better supply the world’s demand on their own.