The '80s Called —They Want Their Trade Policy Back

We really should put protectionism in a drawer between the acid-washed denim pegged jeans and old leg warmers.

Remember the '80s? I do: Fanny packs. Big hair. Renting movies to watch at home that you had to rewind. In the beginning, we were still using rotary telephones; by the end, we had the first cell phone—commonly known as brick phones offering a whopping 30 minutes of talk time. Cameras with film you had to wait a week to get developed into paper prints. Who still remembers having to turn a crank to open your car window? And those awful tight bike shorts.

One thing we certainly don't miss about the '80s: an experiment with protectionist, government-managed trade.

Add to this list of things we don’t miss from the '80s an experiment with protectionist, government-managed trade. The United States went to some of our best, most innovative trading partners and begged them not to sell items to American consumers that American consumers wanted to buy.

Remember the Walkman? It seems Americans enjoyed them a little too much. So the U.S. Government asked Japan not to sell too many, depriving Americans of some reasonable pleasures, and raising prices for products like cars and electronics. American producers of those items saw a small windfall profit. This protectionism approach slowed down the emergence of digital imagery, movies you don’t have to rewind, and cell phones that fit in your pocket. 

But the long-term explosion in manufacturing productivity in the United States and around the world continued unabated, as we produced more with fewer workers. This is, at bottom, a positive thing: rising productivity is the cornerstone of rising prosperity. And the evolution of our economy to greater reliance on services is also positive: creative jobs in web design, marketing, and research and development pay well and keep our country at the cutting edge of technology and innovation—and strengthen our manufacturing base.

We really should put protectionism in a drawer between the acid-washed denim pegged jeans and old leg warmers. It’s time to move on.

The transition is challenging and some people feel left behind, of course, and we need a constructive way to respond to their concerns. But trying to get the whole economy to go back to using the Yellow Pages is not the answer.

Some good things happened in the '80s that are worth celebrating. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War confrontation with Soviet Communism are some of history’s greatest moments. The first season of Seinfeld was pretty promising, too. But we really should put protectionism in a drawer between the acid-washed denim pegged jeans and old leg warmers. It’s time to move on.

Reprinted from George W. Bush Institute.

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