The Anti-Foreign Bias of Voters

I’ve mentioned the populist trade problem before. GMU economist Bryan Caplan has published on the irrationality of voters, demonstrating that voters tend to suffer from biases that disagree with the findings of actual economists. Given our current political climate, consider what he calls “anti-foreign bias”:

Harvard’s Greg Mankiw writes in The New York Times,

Voters clearly aren’t listening to economists. In a recent poll, an overwhelming number of leading economists agreed that Brexit would most likely lower incomes both in Britain and in the rest of the European Union.

Similarly, in the United States, most top economists agree that “past major trade deals have benefited most Americans” and that “trade with China makes most Americans better off.” But those aren’t sentiments we will be hearing anytime soon from Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton.

In one respect, it is easy to understand why. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted last month, only 35 percent of registered voters thought the United States gained from globalization, while 55 percent thought it lost. On issues of international trade, the current crop of candidates is following public opinion. (Henceforth the president, rather than being our elected leader, may be called our elected follower.)

So why are voters so out of touch with the evidence? Mankiw explains,

In particular, Edward Mansfield and Diana Mutz, professors in the political science department of the University of Pennsylvania, have written a pair of research papers exploring attitudes toward free trade and offshore outsourcing. This work gives some clues about what may be happening inside the minds of today’s voters.

…In actuality…people’s attitudes about free trade and offshore outsourcing are unrelated to the characteristics of the industry in which they are employed. After analyzing their survey data on individuals’ attitudes and attributes, these political scientists conclude that voters embrace policies based on the broader national interest…The data analysis of Mr. Mansfield and Ms. Mutz suggests that skepticism about trade and outsourcing is closely related to three other sets of beliefs.

These beliefs are:

  1. Isolationism: the belief that “the United States should stay out of world affairs and avoid getting involved in foreign conflicts. They are not eager for the United States to work with other nations to solve global problems like hunger and pollution.”
  2. Nationalism: the belief that “the United States is culturally superior to other nations. They say the world would be better if people elsewhere were more like Americans.”
  3. Ethnocentrism: the belief that the world is divided “into racial and ethnic groups and think that the one they belong to is better than the others. They say their own group is harder-working, less wasteful and more trustworthy.”

Mankiw concludes,

As Mr. Mansfield and Ms. Mutz put it, “trade preferences are driven less by economic considerations and more by an individual’s psychological worldview.” They also report that this isolationist, nationalist, ethnocentric worldview is related to one’s level of education. The more years of schooling people have, the more likely they are to reject anti-globalization attitudes…In the long run, therefore, there is reason for optimism. As society slowly becomes more educated from generation to generation, the general public’s attitudes toward globalization should move toward the experts’.

Let’s hope so.