"Soon after taking the oath of office, President Donald J. Trump signed a series of Presidential Memoranda to fulfill his promise to make America Great Again on trade and other issues," the White House's public relations arm declared shortly after Trump assumed office.
“I’m deeply concerned by President Trump’s statements today reaffirming his commitment to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)," John McCain said shortly after. "While renegotiations could help to strengthen and modernize NAFTA to benefit American businesses and consumers, any effort to restrict or impose new barriers on our ability to trade with Mexico and Canada could jeopardize the future of this trade agreement and have serious consequences for Arizona and the country."
McCain later added: “The free flow of trade has been the foundation of U.S. economic policy for decades, and a major factor in our prosperity and greatness. We should not have to relearn the lessons of history. Retreating from NAFTA and other international trade agreements will harm our ability to compete in today’s global economy, raise costs for consumers, threaten jobs, and undermine our relations with our closest neighbors.”
What is going on here? So many sparring perspectives on trade from such powerful people.
The Trump-McCain spat is but one theater in a battle of ideas between protectionist and laissez faire personalities. This disagreement has come not only to dominate the right, but our country's left -- think of the difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on economic policy.
Few people are so familiar with the limited government perspective as Dr. Richard Ebeling.
As his employer, The Citadel (South Carolina's prestigious military university -- an unlikely site for such a titan of libertarianism), tells, he "is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership .... Among the courses he offers are "Entrepreneurial Leadership and Capitalist Ethics" and "Ethical Entrepreneurship and Profit-Making."
Second, why do we trade? Either someone can make something we cannot, so we either buy it from him or do without it; or he can make it for less or of a better quality than if we tried to make it ourselves; or by buying it from him rather than making it for ourselves, he frees up our time and resources to make something that is more productively profitable to ourselves. In the latter case, for instance, I may hire a gardener to mow my lawn or a housekeeper to clean up my home, so my time is freed up to do something that enables me to earn, on net, more money than the cost of having them do this work for me.
Third, the same logic applies to people living in different countries, who end up trading with each other across a line on a map defined as a political boundary between nations. In this sense, while the world is divided up into nation-states, from the economic point-of-view of a mutual betterment for all of mankind, the global is potentially one marketplace.
We surely take for granted our increasingly global economy as reflected in the many products and services we choose to buy from others living in other parts of a common planet, just as many of those others find it advantageous and profitable to buy from people living in the United States.
We need to also not forget that the real benefit of every trade we enter into is what we import. Our exports are merely the necessary means by which we buy what we find desirable to purchase from other. I “export” my teaching skills as an economics professor in the classroom to earn the dollars that, then, enables me to “import” into my personal household all the goods offered by others that I desire to have and use. This is no less true for Americans who export some of the goods they produce in exchange for the imports they acquire from people in other countries.