Protectionism Versus Free Trade - a Clash of Values

By , John Benson is senior opinion analyst at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Reviews of opinion data are a regular feature of "The Public Opinion and Demographic Report," which the center helps prepare for American Enterprise magazine.

ON matters of free trade versus protectionism, the public exhibits an ambivalence that arises from a clash between two important values.

Aware that many of their countrymen have lost their jobs in part because of the trade deficit, Americans are predictably inclined to root for the home team. For example, nearly 90 percent say that, given a choice, consumers should try to buy American-made products.

There is considerable sentiment for protecting United States jobs, even if it means closing some of our markets.

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Yet the traditional American preference for free trade remains strong, and many consumers willingly buy foreign-made products.

Forty-eight percent of automobile owners, for instance, say they will consider foreign cars the next time they buy.

Part of the reason for this apparent contradiction is that much of the public is convinced that American products are competitive in the world market. Most public opinion questions are asked in terms of US versus Japanese products and trade policies, the current focus of the debate, but the issue is really one of global competitiveness.

Even in the case of automobiles, where the Japanese have made enormous gains during the past two decades, American consumers discriminate quite clearly between those areas where Japanese imports hold an edge (especially fuel economy) and other areas where domestic cars have an advantage (especially safety and styling). Nor are Americans convinced that the trade deficit with Japan is primarily the result of inferior American products.

The public seems to be aware that the global economy is complex and that its self interest lies in a balance between protecting the livelihood of its own workers and maintaining an open market, in which they believe American products can compete.

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