Is the Media Reporting or Distorting American Opinions About Trade?

Bryan Riley /

The media seem intent on convincing Americans that they no longer support free trade. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, for example, begins “The American public, already skeptical of free trade, is becoming increasingly hostile to it.” The article goes on to report that the results of a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey show that as much as 90 percent of the U.S. public is concerned about outsourcing.

Unfortunately, the survey contains leading questions that push responders toward predictable answers. For example, without providing any context, it would be difficult to find anyone who would disagree with the following question: “Do you agree or disagree that outsourcing of production and manufacturing work to foreign countries is a reason the U.S. is struggling and more people aren’t being hired?”

Fortunately, other surveys that phrase their trade questions in more neutral fashion suggest the situation is not so dismal. For example, a September 2009 poll found 65 percent of the public agreed that trade with other countries is “good for the U.S. economy.” Similarly, 56 percent agreed that trade with other countries is “good for you and your family.” In both cases, over 74 percent of Americans agreed that trade is either “good” or “has no effect.”

During times of economic uncertainty it is wise to be on guard against protectionist sentiment, and warnings to that effect can be useful. However, there is a danger that headlines proclaiming “Americans have Soured on Trade” could become a self-fulfilling prophesy as politicians scramble for someone to blame for the damage they themselves have inflicted on the U.S. economy.