IN DECEMBER, 1992, leaders of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico signed the historic North American Free Trade Agreement. Although NAFTA remains a lightning rod for critics of free trade, by any measure used, it has been a public policy success.
As a trade agreement, it has delivered its principal objective of more trade. Since 1993, the value of two-way U.S. trade with Mexico has nearly tripled, from $81,000,000,000 to $232,000,000,000, growing twice as fast as U.S. trade with the rest of the world. Canada and Mexico are now America's number-one and -two trading partners, respectively, with Japan a distant third.
One reason NAFTA remains controversial today is that advocates and opponents alike were guilty a decade ago of exaggerating its impact. Advocates claimed it would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. economy due to a dramatic rise in exports; opponents claimed far more jobs would be destroyed by a flood of imports entering the U.S. and a stampede of American companies moving to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor. During a debate in 1992, presidential candidate H. Ross Perot famously predicted, "You're going to hear a giant sucking sound of jobs being pulled out of this country."
In reality, NAFTA was never going to have an overwhelming impact on the U.S. economy. America's Gross Domestic Product at the time was almost 20 times larger than Mexico's, and U.S. tariffs against Mexican goods already averaged a low two percent.
For the U.S., NAFTA was more about foreign policy than about the domestic economy. Its biggest payoff for America has been to institutionalize its southern neighbor's turn away from centralized protectionism and toward decentralized, democratic capitalism.
By that measure, NAFTA has been a spectacular success. In the decade since signing NAFTA, Mexico has continued along the road of economic and political reform. It has successfully decoupled its economy from the old boom-and-bust, high-inflation, debt-ridden model that characterized it and much of Latin America up until the debt crisis of the 1980s. In 2000, Mexico avoided an election-cycle economic crisis for the first time since the 1970s. Today, Mexico and Chile are the most-stable and dynamic economies in Latin America, as well as the two that have reformed most aggressively.
Just as important, the economic competition and decentralization embodied in NAFTA encouraged more political competition in Mexico. It broke the economic grip in which the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held the country for most of the 20th century. It is no coincidence that, within seven years of NAFTA's implementation, Vicente Fox became the first opposition-party candidate elected president after 71 years of the PRI's one-party role.
With a decade of hindsight, it is difficult to find any evidence of a "giant sucking sound" of jobs, investment, and manufacturing capacity heading south.
American jobs. Trade is not about more or fewer jobs, but about better ones, and NAFTA is no exception. While competition from Mexico closed some U.S. factories, those closures have allowed resources to shift to sectors where American producers enjoy greater advantages in efficiency. That is the whole idea of trade--to increase production in sectors and industries where one can produce more efficiently. The result is a shift to better-paying jobs. Meanwhile, the overall level of employment is determined by such macroeconomic factors as monetary policy, labormarket regulations, and the business cycle.
For the record, the American economy created millions of new jobs after passage of NAFTA. Civilian employment in the U.S. …