Does International Trade Create Winners and Losers?


“It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy. What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry.” 

—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Is trade good for Americans? People seem largely divided on the issue. A 2017 poll found that only 52 percent of Americans feel that trade agreements between the United States and other countries are good for the United States.1 However, unlike the general population, economists are overwhelmingly supportive of trade. A 2014 poll found that 93 percent of economists agree that past major trade deals have benefited most Americans.2 Given the consensus among economists, why is international trade, and the free-trade agreements that make it possible, so controversial?

Many people suspect that international trade operates as a zero-sum game. That is, they think it is like a sporting event—a competition with rules that ends with a winner and a loser. Specifically, people sometimes think that if our trading partners are gaining through international trade, the United States must be losing. In this view, exported goods represent a “win” for the economy and imported goods represent a “loss” for the economy.

This idea is nothing new; it dominated economic and political thought from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Known then as mercantilism, it led to government policies that encouraged exports and discouraged imports. One of Adam Smith’s purposes in writing The Wealth of Nations (which helped establish economics as a distinct academic discipline) was to dispel the zero-sum game myth behind mercantilism.

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