Ian Fletcher has an interesting short essay on the problems of free trade: “A Neoclassical Hole in Neoclassical Free Trade.” I think that it makes sense, but I am not an economist.
I am disposed to defer to the legions of economists who push free trade like a deeply held religious doctrine. When the vast majority of a field’s experts concur about a topic within their field, it makes sense to trust them. Ocassionally, however, even outsiders can see how the shared assumptions of the experts might lead them to faulty conclusions.
I suspect that such might be the case with free trade. If people were equally rational and capable, then free trade might make for a good economic policy. If any given human population did not have people that could only excel in menial work, then free trade might make for a good economic policy. If all the states of the world had the same environmental and labor protections, then free trade might make for a good economic policy. If a state did not have to worry about maintaining an adequate industrial sector due to matters of national security, then free trade might make for a good economic policy. If a country’s citizenry would invest capital in another country’s economy wherein it is cheaper and more efficient to produce certain goods rather than spend such capital on worthless junk, then free trade might make for a good economic policy. As it stands, though, these conditionals have not been satisfied. The United States has become a debtor nation, by both public and private profligacy, and the free trade policies that allowed the masses to purchase cheap products from China over the past twenty years have not strengthened the American nation or increased its wealth. These cheaply bought goods are not possessions that help us to produce more. They are not useful commodities. Rather, they are silly, pointless luxuries of the consumers of all classes, and, consequently, there has been a steady wealth transfer from America to China. American free trade has been great for China, not for us. The investor class in America that has benefited from the arrangement has weakened the nation for its petty interests.