The theory goes like this: if trade barriers are imposed to protect American industries, then foreign countries will retaliate, closing off markets for American products, thereby harming the American economy which depends on exports. Keep those foreign markets open, and American industry will flourish. Besides, if American companies can't compete with foreign companies, they don't deserve to survive anyway. "Free trade" has been the reigning orthodoxy since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose economic acolytes effectively won the argument. So far as I can tell, there has been a decades-long consensus in American politics on this point. American liberals like the openness to all things foreign; neo-conservatives like a system where money is the highest good; and everybody's happy.
Turns out that free trade theory hasn't worked out so well. Turns out that "free trade" is just another term meaning "cheap is all that matters":
Spoons and forks, the metal flatware that everyone uses, are no longer made in the United States. The last factory in an industry stretching back to colonial times closed eight months ago in Sherrill, N.Y., a small community in the foothills of the Adirondacks, and 80 employees lost their jobs ...
Losing an industry or ceasing to manufacture a particular product, in this case stainless steel flatware, has indeed become a fairly frequent event. Just in the last few years, the last sardine cannery, in Maine, closed its doors. Stainless steel rebars, the sturdy rods that reinforce concrete in all kinds of construction, are now no longer made in America. Neither are vending machines or incandescent light bulbs or cellphones or laptop computers.
I can't be too hard on the free traders. I was one of them for a very long time. Any country needs an economic philosophy, and global democratic capitalism had some brilliant minds behind it. But here's the thing: foreign trade has tremendous potential to both enrich and impoverish nations. It can impoverish a nation by creating economic dependency and vulnerability, ruining a peoples' ability to do necessary things for themselves. That's precisely what is happening to us. Trade on that level is not merely a private exchange with a few externalities: it's a public act with far-reaching social consequences, and must therefore be regulated for the public good.
Even if you don't believe that free trade has anything to do with our economic woes, surely you will admit that full exposure to the tender mercies of predatory global capitalism is probably a bad idea until we begin to recover our manufacturing base.