International Perspective: American Public Opinion on Trade, 1950-1990

By Phelps, Richard | Business Economics, July 1993 | Go to article overview

International Perspective: American Public Opinion on Trade, 1950-1990


Phelps, Richard, Business Economics


PUBLIC OPINION POLLS provide politicians with maps to the politically possible. Whether a politician wants to know which policies will be popular or simply wants to know which rationales might seem credible, poll results can help guide the way. For politicians and for the rest of us, a good understanding of policy choices requires an understanding of the accompanying public opinion.

Public opinion on an issue, moreover, may possess a character independent of the issue itself. This character is shaped by the nature and persuasiveness of the relevant arguments, and by the nature, plausibility, and probability of the different outcomes that could result from different policy choices. American public opinion on international trade possesses a unique character. And its study certainly bears relevance to contemporary events.

This article surveys American public opinion on U.S. trade policy from the 1950s through the 1980s. A thorough search revealed over 1,000 survey questions from twenty-four different polling firms in over 100 separate national polls.(1) A majority of the questions were posed in the 1980s as the U.S. ran up large merchandise trade deficits, widely reported in the media. Many trade questions in the 1950s and 1960s concerned proposed trade embargoes of communist countries.

THE PROMINENCE OF THE TRADE ISSUE

Until the 1980s, the issue of trade seldom appeared in the polls and, when it did, it did not appear prominently. For example, a poll in 1955 asked: "What are some of the things the government can do to keep the country prosperous?".(2) Among the numerous economic policies mentioned in response, "Encourage foreign trade" and "Curtail imports" were mentioned by 4 percent and 3 percent of the respondents, respectively. That put them in eleventh and twelfth place, behind such responses as "Lower taxes," "Keep employment high," "Help the farmers," and "Keep controls on prices." The split and contradictory nature of public opinion on trade policy - roughly equal proportions of the population desiring to encourage trade and to curtail imports - persisted into the 1980s.

A poll in 1972 asked respondents to pick the two or three world problems that merited top priority consideration. "Trade barriers" was mentioned by only 1 percent of the respondents to rank nineteenth out of twenty problems mentioned.(3)

On thirty-two occasions, from August 1980 to May 1988, the New York Times/CBS News poll asked: "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" Not until January 1985 was "Foreign trade" mentioned by over 1 percent of respondents. It was never thereafter mentioned by more than 2 percent of respondents. Thus, in spite of all the attention given to the trade issue in the 1980s, it remained a subordinate or secondary issue in public opinion polls.

Sometimes, trade policy achieved more prominence when ranked within a smaller subset of issues. On ten occasions during the 1980s, pollsters asked respondents to mention or to rank important economic issues, important foreign affairs issues, or important national security issues. Interestingly, trade ranked much higher among national security and foreign affairs issues than it did among economic issues.

THE POPULARITY OF TRADE

When asked most directly, most Americans acclaimed trade to be good for us, at least until recent years. Majorities favored reduced tariffs on imports provided that the other country reduces its tariffs on our goods (67 percent yes; 22 percent no in 1955).(4) Majorities believed that we need foreign trade for our own economic security (74 percent yes; 16 percent no in 1975)(5); that without trade we would suffer considerable economic hardship (66 percent agree; 2 percent disagree in 1972)(6); and that the end of free trade in the modern world would not be an acceptable price to pay for restricting imports (31 percent acceptable; 63 percent not acceptable in 1983). …

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