Thomas Macaulay observed that “Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country unpopular.”. There is plenty of evidence to support this assertion but the reason for public hostility is less clear. What is it that impacts public opinion about trade and why is it not better liked?
Diana Mutz, Professor of Political Science and Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent a number of years researching these questions in the United States and, in Winners and Losers: The psychology of foreign trade, she summarises the results of her research, considers the evidence of other researchers, draws conclusions and reflects upon their implications. She says that her “central purpose … is to bridge a gap in our understanding of the causes and consequences of American attitudes toward international trade” (page 15).
The result is both fascinating and important. All those who believe in the merits of free trade and wish to see it widely pursued by democratic countries should read what Mutz has to say.
She begins with three basic propositions, each of which she successfully justifies. First, “for most Americans, globalization is something happening ‘out there’, away from their everyday lives” (page 2). Secondly, unsurprisingly, most Americans are largely unaware of the economic arguments for and against free trade. As Mutz puts it, “few wax poetic about the wonders of the invisible hand, the efficiency of market specialization, or even the lower cost of consumer goods” (page 3). Thirdly, despite their profound ignorance, people do nonetheless hold opinions about international trade, holding “alternative, lay theories about how international trade works” (page 3).
Many economists have asserted that these home-spun theories are based on the self-interest and Milton Friedman asserted that “Complete free trade is not politically feasible … because it is only in the general interest and in no-one’s special interest”. Mutz’s research, however, provides little support for this. Instead, she suggests that public opinion is based upon sociotropic factors or what, more bluntly, might be called unsophisticated nationalism.
Mutz observes that trade is often seen in terms of competition rather than cooperation and American attitudes to trade are determined to a considerable extent by whether or not it is expected that America will be the “winner”. Furthermore, many people perceive trade as a zero sum game in relation to job gains and losses and, when coupled with uncertainty as to whether America will be the “winner”, this perception can produce highly negative attitudes to it.
Mutz suggests that people’s reasoning in relation to trade is similar to their reasoning in relation to human relationships at a personal level: “People trust people who look more like them” (page 101) and people are influenced by things as basic as who they like and who they do not like. Hence, in a survey conducted by Mutz, those who, in answer to a request to name the US’s three largest trading partners forgot Canada were less likely to support international trade than those who remembered Canada, whilst those who forgot China were more likely to support trade than those who remembered it.
Unfortunately, all of the attitudes that lead to a negative view of trade receive regular reinforcement. Mutz’s survey of references to trade in major US newspapers between 2000 and 2018 indicates that the vast majority of such references viewed trade as competition rather than cooperation; her survey of references to job losses in major US newspapers over the same period indicates that trade is frequently blamed for losses, whilst automation is very rarely blamed despite most economists believing that this is the primary cause of US manufacturing job loss; the idea of trade being a zero sum game is reinforced by concepts such as “trade deficits” and even “fair trade” (which sound, to the uninitiated, as though a fixed sized pie is being unevenly divided); and news stories reporting the benefits of free trade generally support their narrative with graphs and other impersonal material whilst those opposing it show pictures of forlorn American workers who have lost their jobs, which naturally have a bigger emotional impact. More fundamentally, Mutz points to the simplicity of the claims made by those who oppose free trade (primarily relating to job losses) in comparison to the complexity of the arguments in favour of free trade.
Mutz provides copious evidence that, overall, supports her theories. However, the book is not without flaw. Some of the numerous graphs and charts are not well labelled and space limitations have resulted in Mutz cross referring to a significant amount of online material. Readers also need to be on their guard since a number of the graphs are not based to zero, which results in differences being exaggerated (the graphs on page 127 relating to racial differences being particularly egregious examples of this). Furthermore, some of the research results, whilst statistically significant, do not suggest huge differences among different categories of people and Mutz may on occasions be guilty of over-interpreting them.
Mutz is clearly highly pro trade and moderately to the left of centre in her political views. She does not disguise her distaste for some of those who take a different view and, unfortunately, this may have distorted some of her conclusions. For example, she appears to believe that those who are pro trade are more rational than those who oppose it but this does not seem consistent with her own evidence. Thus, she comments that “protectionist attitudes in the US are driven largely by non-economic, symbolic beliefs” (page 241) apparently forgetting that the same appears to be true of attitudes that favour free trade. She also appears reluctant to acknowledge that some non-economic arguments relating to trade may be rational and reasonable. For example, no matter how pro free trade one might be, it is hard to disagree that there are downsides in trading with countries governed by authoritarian regimes and thus the apparent implication in Mutz’s comments that logical and reasonable people should favour trade with China as much as they favour trade with Canada is surely misplaced.
Mutz recognises that her findings are limited to the USA and her evidence from Canada suggests that they may not apply elsewhere. Nonetheless, the findings present those who favour free trade with a challenge: what are we to do about this? Mutz makes a number of reasonable suggestions: efforts should be made to make people realise that most job losses are not caused by trade but by automation; we need to make efforts to enable people to understand trade in terms of cooperation and to realise that it is not a zero sum game; and we need to build on the finding that the vast majority of Americans believe that trade is good for relationships with other countries. However, these suggestions are vague and do not relate closely to all of the issues that Mutz identifies.
In particular, she fails to focus adequately on her recognition that many influences on people’s attitude to free trade “pale in comparison to the impact of prospective financial concern” (page 225). The more insecure that people feel, the more they “hunker down” and one suspects that negative attitudes to trade in the USA are to a significant extent a reflection of a loss of national self-confidence and feelings of insecurity. In The Wolf at the Door, Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro suggest that addressing this is the most important domestic challenge faced by America and it may be that, if it were adequately addressed, support for free trade would materially increase.
That said, Diana Mutz has done a great service to those who favour free trade by clarifying the causes of opposition to it. It is now up to others to work out how best to apply the implications of her research in influencing both politicians and public opinion.
“Winners and Losers” by Diana C. Mutz was published in 2021 by Princeton University Press (ISBN 978-0-691-20302-7). 275pp plus notes and bibliography.
Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world.
Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.