The Truth About Trade: It Makes Our Country Better.

History proves countries that are open to trade rise and their people prosper with stronger economies, more and better-paying jobs, and higher standards of living than countries that close themselves off. Yet today, we’re seeing a rise in protectionism, as policies such as the recent tariffs are hurting those they claim to help the most—destroying jobs and restricting Americans from the benefits of more affordable goods and services from other countries. We are working to open the U.S. economy to the rest of the world so every American can experience greater prosperity—regardless of other countries’ current policies.

We want to open the U.S. economy to the rest of the world so that every American can experience greater prosperity.

Our Vision In Action

  • Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity provide a platform for people being harmed by protectionist policies like the recent tariffs to tell their stories on the national stage. At a recent event in Washington, D.C., Chris Scott, who runs a small Philadelphia factory, said, “Every day it seems like a new tariff is coming up and we’re getting hit.”
  • Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University shows the benefits of trade on national TV and in major newspapers.

Trade has been a key ingredient to increasing Americans’ standards of living by as much as 3,000% over the last two centuries. In just the 50 years following World War II, it benefitted the typical American family by around $10,000 annually.

Guiding Principles and Insights

Imports Make Americans Prosperous.

The evidence is clear: More trade means more prosperity for more Americans over the long term. A recent study found that for every percentage point increase in the share of the economy based on trade, the economy grows twice as fast. The benefits to Americans are immense. By the early 2000s, the typical American family benefited by around $10,000 thanks to the move by countries around the globe to begin reducing trade barriers after World War II.

Yet these benefits are often ignored in the current debate over trade. In fact, today’s debate often gets things completely backward, particularly the argument that trade deficits with other countries are harmful.

In the simplest of terms, a trade deficit means Americans have chosen to buy more stuff they value. Think about it. You run a trade deficit with your grocer: You buy food from them, but they don’t buy anything from you. And yet, you’re both better for it. This reality helps to explain why our trade deficit with China is much larger today—when our economy is strong and unemployment is near historic lows—than during the Great Recession.

Many Americans understandably worry increasing trade is displacing jobs. Displacement is real, but 85% of lost jobs owe to the rapid pace of innovation and technological change that will continue to accelerate. Blocking trade won’t help these workers and their families. It highlights the need to do everything we can to help more people acquire the values and skills to compete in an evolving world. It’s part of the reason we support more than 30 workforce development programs nationwide and invest in cutting-edge educational programs as well.

“Tariffs to us really are a tax. Our ability to be profitable is greatly decreased with tariffs. Trade is an important part of our business.”

Family Farm Owner 

Protectionism Doesn’t “Protect” the United States—At All.

Competition is the key to innovation—and both increase with more trade, to the benefit of the U.S. as a whole. For example, a 2015 study found innovation was higher among firms that were more exposed to Chinese imports than those that weren’t. Another study found the U.S. is 50% more prosperous than if we were closed to trade.

On the other hand, protectionist policies that limit competition also limit innovation, harming everyone—including those they are intended to help—in the process.

Tariffs are a case in point. Tariffs are sales taxes paid by the citizens of the country that imposes them. So when the U.S. slaps tariffs on imported steel, it increases costs for U.S. manufacturers that use steel to make cars, nails, machinery, and countless other products, while raising prices on consumers who buy these and other every day goods. When the U.S. imposed steel tariffs in the early 2000s, they actually destroyed more jobs than the tariffs were designed to protect.

Protectionist policies also harm the very industries they’re designed to protect by providing less incentive to continue innovating over time. For example, even though the U.S. steel industry was “protected” by 150 different provisions during the 1990s and 2000s, it is dramatically smaller today in terms of both employment and investment, with many firms declaring bankruptcy.

The point is: Protectionism doesn’t protect the U.S. at all. Tariffs, quotas, and other protectionist policies harm every American over the long term, while competition and innovation driven by trade benefit us all.

The U.S. wins 87% of complaints it files with the World Trade Organization against other countries’ improper trade practices—a far more effective method for resolving disputes that help the U.S. without harming American workers.

Better Ways to Negotiate Than Taking Yourself Hostage

Critics of trade express some valid concerns, particularly when it comes to China allowing—and in some cases, directly conducting—the theft of intellectual property from U.S. businesses.

That said, launching a “trade war” is akin to taking yourself hostage. Considering tariffs are a sales tax paid by the imposing country’s citizens, a trade war is effectively two countries harming their own people until the other relents. A study found that in 2019, the current trade policies could cost 2.75 million U.S. jobs, among other disastrous consequences.

What should we do instead? History is instructive on this point: Just stop it already.

Places like Hong Kong and Singapore have shown unilaterally eliminating barriers to trade produces enormous benefits for their citizens. And even if other countries stick to their own protectionist policies, Americans would still benefit from eliminating all of ours. We should also pursue multilateral and bilateral trade agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and others that have increased standards of living for all Americans while also providing effective channels for resolving disputes.

More Examples of the Work We Support

In Education

In Communities

  • Supporting dozens of workforce development programs across the country that are helping the unemployed and people whose jobs have been displaced acquire the skills to find employment in new and innovative fields.

In Business

  • Uniting a coalition of more than 50 businesses, trade associations, and others in the business community to take a principled stand against the recent tariffs and provide a more accurate narrative about the benefits of trade.

In Government

  • Launched a multiyear, multimillion-dollar media and communications campaign—including national TV and digital ads and direct mail into lawmakers’ districts—that demonstrate the harms of the recent tariffs and show the benefits of increasing trade.
  • Unite policymakers and citizen activists to defeat protectionist policies such as the border-adjustment tax that was proposed as part of the 2017 tax reform plan and would have raised prices on everyday goods purchased by American families.
  • Support the election of policy champions to the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governorships, and other state-level offices who will enact policies that increase trade and reduce protectionist policies.

Bottom Line

It’s a natural—but ultimately destructive—tendency to respond to the increasing pace of change and innovation by erecting protectionist policies that try to hold on to the past. We should embrace the future and increase trade with other countries, not close ourselves off to the world.