The success of populist presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is fueled, in part, by a surge in opposition to free trade on both ends of the American political spectrum. Both candidates are proposing antiquated, protectionist policies with the false promise that they will secure an increase in well-paying, American jobs.
This approach is a complete abandonment of the long-standing U.S. commitment to free trade, which has contributed to increases in the average American’s standard of living and the amount of goods available to consumers.
The ideas advanced by both candidates do little to address the fact that many jobs are actually lost to technological advances, and no reasonable or ethical government intervention can protect jobs that are no longer relevant.
The public would be better served by supporting efforts to improve the outcomes of ongoing trade negotiations rather than threatening to throw the baby out with the bathwater by going back to 19th century protectionism.
Regulatory barriers are the tariffs of the 21st century
While these candidates are busy plugging policies that are unlikely to improve the average American’s economic situation, the U.S. and EU trade delegations continue their negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) aimed at increasing economic growth by reducing lingering barriers to international trade and investment. The 13th Round of TTIP negotiations between the U.S. and EU took place in New York April 25 – 29 and included an opportunity for the public to participate by providing input directly to negotiators.
In the past, free trade agreements largely succeeded by lowering tariffs as a means to increase the benefits from trade. As a result, most of the economic growth is now expected to come from reducing unnecessary regulatory constraints on trade.
Much of TTIP is dedicated to avoiding unnecessary differences in regulation that result in increased costs to consumers while ensuring that regulations protect property rights and address public needs rather than cater to particular interests or act as barriers to trade.
Productive input not empty rhetoric
Politicians oppose trade to varying degrees in this election cycle, but not a single candidate has coupled their rhetorical concern with a genuine proposal to improve the outcomes of talks already underway between the U.S. and EU.
These negotiation rounds are informed by input from citizens, businesses, and experts in government and academia. They provide an opportunity for interested parties to voice their concerns and preferences and offer insights on nuanced issues that could benefit negotiations.
One example of this: the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center recently published a collection of case studies by former senior government officials and scholars as part of a two-year grant from the EU to conduct policy research and engage public debate to examine regulatory challenges and opportunities to transatlantic trade. These papers are informed by experts who analyze how cooperation has worked in practice between the U.S. and the EU and offer insights to improve cooperation and expand opportunities for input from the public.
As evidenced by their cooperative efforts, it’s clear the U.S. and EU are still committed to the idea that the benefits from trade to society as a whole far outweigh the losses to interest groups who stand to lose from greater competition.
It’s true that some people may lose their jobs as a result of technological advances regardless of the promises made by politicians. Protectionist policies won’t change that reality – they will only harm consumers.
Our conversations and efforts should instead focus on how we can increase the benefits of trade and better serve consumer demand and the American workforce. Public input is important for making sure that regulatory systems are evidence based, transparent, and accountable to their citizens.
See also: Report -- US-EU Regulatory Cooperation: Lessons and Opportunities, April 2016