Why People Are Afraid of Free Trade

21 Feb, 2017

Impact

Why People Are Afraid of Free Trade

In what the authors call “the first effort to assess whether and why hard times” affect Americans’ attitudes toward international trade, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania find that a significant component of anti-trade sentiment is not, strictly speaking, a response to economic conditions alone.

Yes, the researchers say, protectionist attitudes rise as a result of economic downturns. This is especially so for people who lost their jobs during the Great Recession of 2008. But even in sectors facing competition from imports, “non-economic influences” generated even greater hostility to trade deals than unemployment.

‘Generalized Anxiety’

Political scientist Edward D. Mansfield and his colleagues found support for the results of previous studies showing that an aversion to international affairs and heightened resentment of people of different races and ethnicities also contribute to anti-trade feelings. All are manifestations of a “generalized anxiety” experienced by people during economic downturns. This anxiety, which makes people risk averse, appears to intensify in response to other events, too, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

In fact, the most pronounced effect on these attitudes is a concern — understandable when people are risk averse — about “the future effects of trade.” Changes in these views, Mansfield et al. argue, “are less a conscious re-evaluation of trade’s merits than an anxiety-based emotional reaction.”

Political scientist Edward D. Mansfield and his colleagues found support for the results of previous studies showing that an aversion to international affairs and heightened resentment of people of different races and ethnicities also contribute to anti-trade feelings.

What the researchers don’t mention is that perhaps support for international trade shouldn’t rely too heavily on economic arguments alone. After all, there’s a risk in failing to make an emotionally persuasive case for trade. With that in mind, the researchers quote — approvingly — an Economist editorial that worries that “the political momentum in America, having swung against trade, will be hard to reverse.” If so, the implications could be felt more broadly than we realize.


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