Why “Made in America” Shouldn’t Be a Deal-Breaker

Originally Published April 28, 2011:

The phrase “Made in China” is easily recognizable. It’s stamped on the bottom of everything from TVs to drinking glasses and brings to mind mass-produced plastic toys and factory workers bent over whirring machines. It’s almost a national joke that a significant number of the objects we use everyday can be traced back to foreign countries. But “Made in China” also represents a somewhat darker and more serious message to some: stolen American jobs.

With so much emotion surrounding economic security on a personal as well as a national level, it is not difficult to realize that foreign products can easily spark a heated debate. However, this misguided sentiment can lead to misunderstandings. Foreign products and workers are not solely responsible for the struggling American economy and it is impractical to buy only American-made goods.

Free trade shouldn’t be demonized or blamed for American job loss. In fact, it can be beneficial for all parties involved. American businesses have benefited greatly from free trade agreements that limit or bypass tariffs. These companies benefit when taxes that would make their goods less attractive to foreign buyers are reduced or eliminated. It is hypocritical to refuse to reciprocate to foreign businesses. Since World War II, the United States has been a proponent of free trade, facilitating the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and numerous other smaller agreements.

The sentiment that foreign products are hurting the American economy is in direct opposition to a pro free trade stance. The United States economy prides itself on a capitalist free market. Free trade expands this market around the globe. Businesses from other countries deserve a fair shot to compete for the attention of the United States consumer. American companies do their best to make money in other countries and we should realize that foreign businesses have the right to do so as well. Without this competition there would be no push to improve American-made products. If products can be made more efficiently in other countries, they should be—that is how a free market works.

According to the census bureau, the United States imported 1.9 trillion dollars worth of goods in 2010. It would be extremely impractical to even think about reversing this behavior in favor of domestic products. Relying on imported goods has become so ingrained in our economy that it would be impossible to simply decide to replace everything imported to support America businesses.

But doesn’t buying foreign products support a job overseas? It seems difficult to justify buying an American product simply because the money stays in the country when you’d be paying the salary of someone else overseas buying a foreign counterpart. The money goes to someone either way and it seems morally questionable, reprehensible even, to automatically default to the view that an American livelihood is more worthwhile to support than one in a foreign country.

Insulating American companies from this competition doesn’t do any good. If foreign products are less expensive or better made, it makes sense to purchase those over domestic ones. Not doing so goes against the basic principles of economics. However, there seems to be a stigma attached to buying foreign goods and a pride associated with buying domestically.

ABC World News has launched a “Made in America” series designed to examine the buying habits of typical Americans and their families. To begin, they completely emptied a Dallas family’s house of everything not made in the United States. Every time the family or the newscaster picked up another thing made in China, Mexico or Vietnam they would frown at each other, sigh and move it out of the house. Needless to say there was little left inside when they were finished.

This shows an attitude in opposition to the very idea of buying anything from overseas.
The series continued by re-furnishing the family’s house with only items made domestically. The parents returned home and gushed at the beauty of the couches from North Carolina, the floor rug from Georgia and the microwave from Wisconsin.

The attitude was that this house was inherently better than before because it was supporting jobs at home.

The ABC news series has moved on to highlighting businesses in the United States that are continuing to produce goods in the United States. It is, of course, a good thing to highlight businesses doing good things. If such companies make products that rival or exceed foreign ones, then they should indeed be patronized. It’s not that buying American products is bad, it’s that demonizing foreign ones is.

Companies overseas are after the same things that domestic ones are. If we continue to export as much as we do so that foreign consumers can buy our products it only makes sense to import as well. It is hypocritical to sell American goods overseas and then speak of the importance of buying products only from American companies. Products from other countries are not inherently evil and they are not going away. Such readily available merchandise is a function of a global market that is here to stay.

Rather than advocate buying solely American-made products, we should focus on adapting our economy to stay competitive. If our factories cannot compete in the manufacturing sector any longer, it is impractical to call for a boycott of imported goods to save American companies that aren’t viable. Instead, focusing on areas of the economy that the United States can compete in is a much better plan.

There shouldn’t be a stigma associated with buying products from other countries. We shouldn’t blame foreign countries for our own economic troubles. We should adapt to a changing world economy to promote job growth rather than resort to a protectionist outlook. We shouldn’t be afraid of a label that doesn’t say “Made in the USA”, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say “May the best product win.”