Free trade has been the great trend of the past 30 years
Who could be against those two words together?
"Free" is among the most-beloved words in the English language. It means costless and it's a synonym for liberty. Everyone wants everything to be free.
"Trade" is almost as good. We like to trade. I have something extra and you give me something I need. Everyone is happy.
Combining them is poetry. As propaganda it has an unblemished record. No two economic words together are so-adored. 'Free trade' is synonymous with 'everybody wins'.
No serious economist or politician has dared to speak against free trade for a generation. The doctrine was so all-consuming in the past generation that no word against it would be aired even if someone did speak against it. It was unopposed. Unchallenged.
What economists have always been saying wasn't that 'everyone wins' with free trade. It was 'everyone wins on net'.
'On net' the world benefitted. But on the ground it has undoubtedly been those who owned the factories and the third-world workers where the factories moved to.
There would always be losers and it's abundantly clear that there was no plan to deal with the losers. In theory they could move or learn something new but in practice, they were swept aside.
Another thing economists said to those who listened a tad more closely was that 'free trade works in theory'.
And it does. But in practice, thousands of rules, regulations, side-deals and caveats apply to every deal. Intellectual property, safety, espionage and enforcement undermine them all. The worst are the subsidies, back-door subsidies and blind-eyes to environmental degradation that undermine true free trade. There is no even-playing field, it's a minefield of kickbacks, protectionism and tax loopholes.
In practice, all the deals marketed as 'free trade' have always been old-fashioned trade deals where governments pick winners and losers.
So when Donald Trump laments NAFTA it rings true. Whether he wins or loses the election, he's one of a handful of politicians around the world who have shown anti-globalization is a message that resonates. He may be a poor messenger in many ways but it's only a matter of time until the anti-free-trade side refines its own propaganda.