Understandably, some ask whether we should abandon the economic principles behind our historic prosperity. Should government redistribute wealth? Is free enterprise a flawed system? Should we abandon free trade? No, no and no. Redistribution is what once impoverished China and the Soviet Union. Free enterprise is the only permanent cure for poverty. Free trade has the demonstrated ability to make the people of both trading nations more prosperous.
But for free enterprise and free trade to work their magic, laws and rules that guide the participants are essential to prevent distortions and abuses. If the rules are modern and dynamic, enterprise can thrive. If they are burdensome and antiquated, enterprise will stall. For rules to be effective, of course, all players must abide by them. The incentive to cheat can be enormous. So is the harm that cheating can cause.
China is a case in point. Having embraced free enterprise to some degree, the Chinese government and Chinese companies have quickly divined the benefits of ignoring the rules followed by others. China seeks advantage through systematic exploitation of other economies. It misappropriates intellectual property by coercing “technology transfers” as a condition of market access; enables theft of intellectual property, including patents, designs and know-how; hacks into foreign commercial and government computers; favors and subsidizes domestic producers over foreign competitors; and manipulates its currency to artificially reduce the price of its goods and services abroad.
The result is that China sells high-quality products to the United States at low prices. But too often the source of that high quality is American innovations stolen by Chinese companies. And the source of those low prices is too often subsidies from the Chinese government or manipulation of the Chinese currency.
Some argue that access to quality goods at low prices are good for our consumers. But like the predatory pricing prohibited under our antitrust laws, China’s underpriced products lead to an undesirable and inefficient elimination of competing businesses, with serious long-term consequences. And in this case, the businesses killed are often our own. Meanwhile, American companies do not even get the supposed benefit of the free-trade bargain: When they try to do business in the Chinese market, they find policies designed to shut them out.
Candidate Obama talked tough about China’s trade policies; President Obama has whispered about them. China smiles, diverts attention by criticizing the United States and merrily continues to eat our economic lunch. Who can blame the Chinese for ignoring our timid complaints when the status quo has served them so well?
Actually doing something about China’s cheating makes some people nervous. Not doing something makes me nervous. We are warned that we might precipitate a trade war. Really? China is selling us $273 billion per year more than America is selling China — why would it possibly want a trade war?