THE BLOG

The Social Snobbery of Free Trade

03/07/2011 02:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Skepticism about free trade is often stigmatized with ad hominem attacks. These mostly come down to variations on the following:

"Protectionists are dummies, losers, incompetents, hippies, rednecks, dinosaurs, closet socialists, or crypto-fascists."

Thomas Friedman's version in The World is Flat (the Das Kapital of Globalism) runs thus:

Let's face it: Republican cultural conservatives have much more in common with the steelworkers of Youngstown, Ohio, the farmers of rural China, and the mullahs of central Saudi Arabia, who would also like more walls, than they do with investment bankers on Wall Street or service workers linked to the global economy in Palo Alto, who have been enriched by the flattening of the world.

And here's free trader Barack Obama's version, delivered to an audience of campaign donors in the exclusive Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco (a few blocks from where I lived at the time) while seeking the Democratic nomination in April 2008:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. (Emphasis added.)

God forbid the unemployed of an old-line industrial state should think trade has anything to do with their problems! How silly of them.

The media are saturated with these patronizing attitudes. Thus magazine articles on trade problems focus on the unemployed, implying that only life's losers oppose free trade (and that their unemployment is probably their own fault, anyway). The careers of people whose jobs are being lost to offshoring? Mere "drudgery." Their lives are obviously nothing worth worrying about. They're not like us here in Pacific Heights.

Ultimately, economic logic isn't even really the issue here, as these arguments are really aimed at people who don't even try to understand economics, but do care immensely about their social status. Free trade is chic, global, modern, classy.

Free traders have been playing this game for a very long time. The American protectionist author Giles Stebbins complained in 1883:

It is the fashion in many of our colleges to assume that free trade is the ideal of the noblest persons and the best minds in the Old World, while protection is a vulgar and selfish matter advocated by those of lesser note and narrower culture.

Luckily for America, in 1883 such ridiculous arguments were not taken seriously, at least on the trade issue, and the country was protectionist--even under the rule of such genuine American aristocrats as Teddy Roosevelt.

A lot of this is just a tasteful gloss on raw class bias. Despite the documented center-left preferences of most journalists on social and cultural issues, on economic issues, including trade, they lean right. A late-1990s survey by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found, for example, that only on environment-related economic issues were they to the left of the public. But on trade, they were well to the right. ("Right" defined as per usual in contemporary American politics; 100 years ago, protectionism was the rightist position.) For example, 71 percent of editors and reporters supported Fast Track negotiating authority for the North American Free Trade Agreement, while 56 percent of the public opposed it. As 95 percent of these editors and reporters had incomes over $50,000, and more than half over $100,000, this comes as no surprise.

But there is no good reason for the rest of us to be intellectually intimidated by these people, no matter how complete their mastery of social posturing and media innuendo. It is high time people stopped forming their opinions about free trade based on what they think people will think of them at cocktail parties. If they will make even a moderate stab at inquiring into its underlying economics, they will find out very quickly that it is an exceedingly dubious policy.