Bryan Caplan  

Framing Anti-Foreign Bias

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Non-economists suffer from anti-foreign bias, a tendency to underestimate the benefits of interacting with foreigners. But how stubborn is this bias? A well-crafted survey by Michael Hiscox has the answers. Everyone in his sample was asked "Do you favor or oppose increasing trade with other nations?" and "Is that strongly favor (oppose) or somewhat favor (oppose)?," combined with one of the following introductions:

  • Pro-Trade Intro: Many people believe that increasing trade with other nations creates jobs and allows Americans to buy more types of goods at lower prices.

  • Anti-Trade Intro: Many people believe that increasing trade with other nations leads to job losses and exposes American producers to unfair competition.

  • Both Intros: Many people believe that increasing trade with other nations creates jobs and allows Americans to buy more types of goods at lower prices. Others believe that increasing trade with other nations leads to job losses and exposes American producers to unfair competition.

  • No Intro

Big results:

1. The Pro-Trade Intro had no effect; people who heard it were no more supportive of free trade than people who had No Intro.

2. Hearing either the Anti-Trade Intro OR Both Intros sharply reduced support for free trade. The Anti-Trade Intro reduced support by 17 percentage-points; Both Intros reduced support by 19 percentage-points!

Hiscox puts an optimistic spin on these results: People only seem to be protectionist due to framing effects. A more natural conclusion to draw, though, is that free debate favors protectionism. If both free-traders and protectionists get to voice their opinions, the public becomes more protectionist than if neither free-traders nor protectionists get to do so. And under democracy, of course, the former is precisely what happens.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/477
The author at Catallarchy in a related article titled Of Foreign Lands and Peoples writes:
    Bryan Caplan has a post worth reading summarizing some work on anti-foreign bias. His conclusion: [F]ree debate favors protectionism. If both free-traders and protectionists get to voice their opinions, the public becomes more protectionist than ... [Tracked on March 22, 2006 8:09 PM]
COMMENTS (10 to date)
Karl Smith writes:

The conclusion I draw is that the simple protectionist arguement makes more sense to a non-economist that the simple free trade arguement.

Tell the average undergrad that buying a car from Japan creates jobs in the U.S. and you will get a blank stare.

A little nudging can convince them to that it lowers prices in the US but the morally conscience among them still perfer jobs to cheap cars.

The only way I can get free trade => more jobs in 5 minutes is by invoking the FED. Lower prices mean the FED can lower interest rates and create more jobs. This they buy.

In many ways this is what you want to tell them anyway. Implicitly students are assuming that foreigners are keeping our greenbacks and the students are worried about a decline in the money supply sparking a recession.

They typically can't articulate this themselves but in my experience if you keep asking opened questions this is usually the logical strain they are operating off of.

aaron writes:

Change means more work. People who have jobs simply don't want to do the work that would create more jobs.

Why work if you have job security?

Kyle writes:

Seems that this research might be affected by the fact that people have already heard and internalized an awful lot of anti-free-trade rhetoric. I can't remember any politician who went on long diatribes in a pro-free-trade direction. The converse is of course not even marginally true.

Albert Nigrin writes:

I wonder what the result of the third intro would have been if the order was reversed as in:

Many people believe that increasing trade with other nations leads to job losses and exposes American producers to unfair competition. Others believe that increasing trade with other nations creates jobs and allows Americans to buy more types of goods at lower prices.

The second sentence is in the stress position, and should have more effect on the listener than the first.

Albert

liberty writes:

I believe that it is because the protectionists have framed the debate for so long, and economics education is so poor. You don't need to be an economist to understand the free trade argument - anyone who has taken one decent course in economics at the college level or who was raised by parents who understand the issues, gets it. The protectionists are loud politicans who have been framing the debate in the public square for a long time - and many other countries have economists who go along with it, the media loves it, the unions love it. People are hearing the protectionist argument from all sides, so when its written down in front of them in the intro they grab onto it "That's right! That's why I am against trade!"

If we had as much chatter about free trade, and people were taught basic econ in high school and people understood something about where prosperity comes from - it would be the opposite.

liberty writes:

>The only way I can get free trade => more jobs in 5 minutes is by invoking the FED

It doesn't take very long to explain comparative advantage. Trade whether between people in one country or between two countries means that each person can specialize, do what he does best and use his time well - then trading it means that both parties are better off.

They make plastics cheap in Japan - be it toys, electronics or cheap cars. If you want a cheap car, buy it from Japan, if you want a big truck, by it from America. While not bothering to make cheap plastic car, Americas can spend more time making trucks, airplanes and hollywood movies. And with the money we saved buying cheaper Japanese cars (instead of cheap cars made in America but that cost more because wages are higher) we can pour more money to films and trucks.

AndrewPundit writes:

I frame this as a simple Pro-Familiar-Claims Bias!

It's not about which arguments better fit respondents' models in some logical way. It's about which arguments sound non-fishy to them!

Especially with this phrasing:

Many people believe that increasing trade with other nations creates jobs and allows Americans to buy more types of goods at lower prices.
Many respondents will feel lied to when the surveyer reads that to them, because they've never heard such an "absurd" claim from any pro-trade advocate!

This guy gets it:

Kyle writes:
Seems that this research might be affected by the fact that people have already heard and internalized an awful lot of anti-free-trade rhetoric. I can't remember any politician who went on long diatribes in a pro-free-trade direction. The converse is of course not even marginally true.

Paul N writes:

To me this is just a manifestation of risk aversion, an (irrational?) general trait of human nature. People are not aware of the risk, then you tell them of the risk, and they pick what they think is the less risky alternative.

Steve Sailer writes:

Or perhaps economists suffer from a bias of underestimating the costs of the violence that foreigners can do to us?

For example, what would have been the savings in dollars of preventing 9/11 through more border vigilance? Sum part of the post 9/11 economic downturn, the increase in government spending, the costs of the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War, and you're going to end up in the trillions of dollars.

The Bush Administration's Grand Strategy of Invite-the-World-Invade-the-World is turning out awfully expensive.

aaron writes:

Steve, you're forgetting the costs of preventing 9/11 and not going to war in Iraq and Afgahnistan.

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