Ronald Reagan on Free Trade

Ronald Reagan on Free Trade versus Protectionism

“In 1776 our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, charging the British with a number of offenses, among them, and I quote, “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.” 

Ronald Reagan, Radio Address, November 26, 1988

And that same year, a Scottish economist named Adam Smith launched another revolution with a book entitled “The Wealth of Nations,” which exposed for all time the folly of protectionism. Over the past 200 years, not only has the argument against tariffs and trade barriers won nearly universal agreement among economists but it has also proven itself in the real world, where we have seen free-trading nations prosper while protectionist countries fall behind.

America’s most recent experiment with protectionism was a disaster for the working men and women of this country. When Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, we were told that it would protect America from foreign competition and save jobs in this country—the same line we hear today. The actual result was the Great Depression, the worst economic catastrophe in our history; one out of four Americans were thrown out of work. Two years later, when I cast my first ballot for President, I voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who opposed protectionism and called for the repeal of that disastrous tariff.

“Ever since that time, the American people have stayed true to our heritage by rejecting the siren song of protectionism. In recent years, the trade deficit led some misguided politicians to call for protectionism, warning that otherwise, we would lose jobs. But they were wrong again. In fact, the United States not only didn’t lose jobs, we created more jobs than all the countries of Western Europe, Canada, and Japan combined. The record is clear that when America’s total trade has increased, American jobs have also increased. And when our total trade has declined, so have the number of jobs.

Part of the difficulty in accepting the good news about trade is in our words. We too often talk about trade while using the vocabulary of war. In war, for one side to win, the other must lose. But commerce is not warfare. Trade is an economic alliance that benefits both countries. There are no losers, only winners. And trade helps strengthen the free world.

Yet today protectionism is being used by some American politicians as a cheap form of nationalism, a fig leaf for those unwilling to maintain America’s military strength and who lack the resolve to stand up to real enemies—countries that would use violence against us or our allies. Our peaceful trading partners are not our enemies; they are our allies.

We should beware of the demagogues who are ready to declare a trade war against our friends—weakening our economy, our national security, and the entire free world—all while cynically waving the American flag. The expansion of the international economy is not a foreign invasion; it is an American triumph, one we worked hard to achieve, and something central to our vision of a peaceful and prosperous world of freedom.

After the Second World War, America led the way to dismantle trade barriers and create a world trading system that set the stage for decades of unparalleled economic growth. And in one week, when important multilateral trade talks are held in Montreal, we will be in the forefront of efforts to improve this system. We want to open more markets for our products, to see to it that all nations play by the rules, and to seek improvement in such areas as dispute resolution and agriculture. We also want to bring the benefits of free trade to new areas, including services, investment, and the protection of intellectual property. Our negotiators will be working hard for all of us.

Yes, back in 1776, our Founding Fathers believed that free trade was worth fighting for. And we can celebrate their victory because today trade is at the core of the alliance[s] that secure the peace and guarantee our freedom; it is the source of our prosperity and the path to an even brighter future for America.

Why America Needs to Support Free Trade

Why Free Trade is Good

The Benefits of Free Trade:  Addressing Key Myths

Free Trade Agreements Have Been Good for America


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