The Wilson Quarterly

In theory, consumers ought to prefer free trade. What about reality?

Most people are producers as well as consumers, and the more they think of themselves as producers, the more likely they are to oppose dropping trade barriers that protect struggling sectors such as agriculture.

The new prime minister of Japan, Yoshihiko Noda, made a bold move last fall when he announced that his country would participate in talks to join a Pacific free-trade agreement. Japan provides generous support to its agricultural sector through subsidies to farmers and hefty tariffs on rice and other food imports. These protections would likely shrink under the terms of a free-trade deal.

In theory, consumers ought to prefer free trade because it brings down prices. But most people are producers as well as consumers, and the more they think of themselves as producers, the more likely they are to oppose dropping trade barriers that protect struggling sectors such as agriculture. Political scientists Megumi Naoi of the University of California, San Diego, and Ikuo Kume of Waseda University, in Tokyo, show that in the midst of the 2008 global downturn, Japanese strongly supported protections for their country’s farm sector when they were encouraged to identify with farmers as producers.

In Naoi and Kume’s experiment, 1,200 Japanese adults were shown images that “primed” them to think of themselves as either consumers or producers. Those in the first group viewed a food-filled supermarket, an electronics store, and a casual clothing store. Those in the second saw an office, a car factory, and a rice field. (A control group was not shown any images.)

At least half of the people in all three groups described food imports as bad or very bad, but those who were primed to think of themselves as producers were most likely to express a negative view. Sixty percent of them did so. People who were primed to think as consumers indicated dislike of food imports at about the same rate as those in the control group. People were much less opposed to imports in general, but priming had effects there, too: Thirty-two percent of those encouraged to think as producers rated general imports as bad, while only 14 percent of those primed as consumers did.

People who reported difficulty finding a job or were older were much more likely to support agricultural protectionism when primed to think from the producer perspective. More than 64 percent of participants with either attribute expressed a negative view. They seemed to project their own job insecurities and desire for government assistance onto the agricultural sector, the authors say. The forces that nurture protectionist sentiment are much more powerful and complex than economists generally recognize.

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The Source: "Explaining Mass Support for Agricultural Protectionism: Evidence from a Survey Experiment During the Global Recession" by Megumi Naoi and Ikuo Kume, in International Organization, Fall 2011. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Héctor

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