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International Trade

International Trade in General

Americans' views of international trade are complex and cannot be explained as a simple preference for free trade or protectionism. A strong majority of Americans views trade, in principle, as something positive and as having significant benefits for the US economy. However, the majority also has major reservations about how trade has been put into practice: Americans show strong concern that, though trade has benefited business and the wealthy, it has not benefited American workers and has widened the gap between rich and poor. Americans also show concern that trade has been harmful to the environment, to international labor standards, and to poor countries; and are unhappy because they believe that, while US trade practices are fair, most other countries' are not. Thus, on balance, the net feeling about trade is lukewarm at best. However, if Americans' reservations are addressed, an overwhelming majority says it would then support free trade--suggesting that what resistance there is to the growth of trade is derived from pragmatic, not ideological concerns.

Poll questions about trade produce results that may appear quite confusing. Some questions may appear to show strong majority support for trade, while others show majority opposition. In fact Americans' attitudes toward trade are quite complex and do not fall inside a simple preference for trade or protectionism, but rather involve numerous value concerns about how trade occurs. Many poll questions nonetheless ask Americans to make an up-or-down judgment about trade. As a result Americans tend to be highly responsive to the way that the question is asked, looking for ways to express the nuances of their attitudes.

Looking carefully at the wording of questions, we do find a coherent pattern in the public's attitudes. Questions that ask about trade in principle or about its effects on the economy show fairly strong support. However, when questions raise issues about the impact of trade in other dimensions, strong majorities show strong reservations. When asked to assess the overall impact of trade or asked to weigh the benefits of trade against other concerns, support for trade is at best lukewarm.

Support for Trade in Principle

Reservations About the Effects of Trade in Practice

On Balance, Feelings About Trade Lukewarm

Overwhelming Support for Trade when Workers Are Helped




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