A Chinese friend recently told me about his road trip to the Grand Canyon. The American West proved to be much different than his hometown of Beijing, so like most tourists, he went to buy a souvenir at one of the many gift shops. However, he discovered that the trinkets promoting one of our most treasured national landmarks were all “Made in China.” I was proud to explain the concept of comparative advantage and the benefits of free trade, but it appears as though people are becoming offended by the fact that products promoting American patriotism are manufactured overseas.
While visiting the “Price of Freedom” museum store in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History last month, U.S Senator Bernie Sanders was outraged to find that busts of U.S Presidents were “Made in China.” Sanders then expressed his desire to see more domestic products in the museum store by writing a letter to the museum director in which he explained, “given the state of the Economy, I would urge the National Museum of American History to do its best to find American companies to manufacture the products it sells.”
Buying products manufactured abroad is not a practice that has become popular in recent years. In fact, America’s prosperity originates in foreign trade. In 1607 Jamestown was founded by the Virginia Company of London to export raw materials in exchange for finished goods from England. New England in early colonial America became rich buy trading fur with Europe for finished goods, and the southern colonies become wealthy by selling cash crops, like tobacco and indigo, to England. In fact people in colonial America became so wealthy by trading that English attempts to restrict trade by taxing Tea and other imported goods helped spark the American Revolution.
Right now no one is forcing Museum customers to buy products manufactured overseas. In fact, many entrepreneurs have created “Buy American” websites where consumers can purchase almost anything while receiving some kind of satisfaction by knowing it was made in America. Those who wish to pay higher prices for domestically manufactured products and promote self sufficiency certainly have the freedom to reject the benefits of specialization and comparative advantage and mistakenly embrace poverty as a form of patriotism, but Senator Sanders wants to force all Americans to buy domestically manufactured products when visiting the Smithsonian. Sanders has pledged to introduce legislation mandating that the tax payer supported museums buy American products. Clearly Sanders feels it is the government’s responsibility to ensure our Museum stores are selling American Made souvenirs even if it means using legal coercion to make them do so.
Sander’s threat to use legal coercion to centrally plan the types of products sold at the “Price of Freedom” store only illustrate how strong the benefits of free trade are. The Profits from the Museum store support the new Smithsonian initiatives, so there is little doubt that the Museum stores do not seek to maximize its profits. Thus, a government mandate for the stores to buy American products will only cost tax payers more money, potentially leave the museum with fewer resources, and increase the number of unhappy gift shop customers. Smithsonian even admits that their most popular products are exclusively manufactured overseas. The benefits of free trade are obviously so great that Sanders fears he will have to legislate against it so that the Museum stores will do what he thinks is best.
“Given the state of our economy” we should be encouraging trade instead of restricting it, but free trade won’t be one of the freedoms Americans can celebrate by visiting the “Price of Freedom” Museum store, even though free trade was certainly one of the freedoms Americans have fought for. We have the freedom to exercise our comparative advantage and focus our resources on things of much greater value than museum trinkets. Outsourcing the production of products that promote American patriotism only speaks to the strength of our economy and the desirability of American services; the fact that our own museums sell trinkets made in China is something we should be proud of, yet as expected, the Smithsonian has agreed to sell only American made products in the “Price of Freedom” store starting this July, at which point it would be most appropriate to re-name the store “The Price of Big Government.”