Bad trade talk: the rhetoric of economic nationalism is counterproductive.

Author:Lester, Simon

Much of the trade policy debate revolves around economics, politics, and international relations. Common issues for debate are: Is multilateral or regional free trade preferable? Do we have the votes this year for Trade Promotion Authority or the Trans Pacific Partnership? Which trading partners should we be negotiating with?

While these questions are important, they overlook a more fundamental determinant of the trade agenda: psychology. People's attitudes about trade are ultimately the main driver of what governments are able to accomplish.

Attitudes are formed based on many factors, but one key element is what people hear from politicians. When political leaders espouse economic nationalism, these ideas seep in to the average person's worldview.

But instead of stoking fears of the "other" with nationalist rhetoric, as they often do, politicians should change the way they talk about trade, to promote the idea of economic internationalism and integration. Changing the rhetoric would be a good way to reduce protectionist sentiment, and, in the long run, get the trade agenda back on track.


In two recent papers, political scientists Edward Mansfield and Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania studied Americans' attitudes towards free trade in general, and outsourcing in particular.

With regard to free trade, the authors considered explanations for free trade skepticism that are rooted in an individual's income level or in working in an import-competing industry. However, they found limited support for either explanation in the survey data. By contrast, they found that "non-economic influences," including ethnocentrism, nationalism, and isolationism, helped explained trade skepticism. In this regard, they found that "there is little support for free trade among people who believe the United States is superior to other countries, hold isolationist views, and exhibit evidence of prejudice toward groups unlike themselves." The effects of isolationist attitudes and ethnocentrism are "statistically significant" and "relatively large." They conclude:

Activist foreign policy attitudes, a positive attitude toward out-groups, and a preference for open trade, however, all reflect a sense of cosmopolitanism and inclusion. Isolationism, a negative attitude toward out-groups, and antipathy toward open trade all reflect a sense of insularity and separatism. In short, trade preferences are driven less by economic considerations and more by an individual's psychological worldview. The authors returned to this same issue several years later in the specific context of outsourcing. Here, too, they found that people's views were shaped more by general "ethnocentrism and...

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