I reviewed Friedrich List’s arguments against free trade here.
Ms McArdle, a proponent of free trade, makes List’s case better than he possibly could have when she says:
Yet in both places [i.e. the US and China], the worry [about losing jobs to other countries] is silly–at least on an aggregate level. For an individual with a job in a textile factory, there may indeed be displacement. Yet over the centuries, our economy has "lost" millions of jobs.
The emphasis is mine.
We can all agree that free trade works best on an aggregate level and over centuries. It’s too bad that this doesn’t tell us anything about the real world in the present.
We all live in countries. We do not live in an international aggregate. If some jobs are lost in the US and gained in China, "we" may be better off in the aggregate (we presumably being humanity – though I have no idea how anyone can know what’s best for the international aggregate of humanity). In reality, the citizens of the US will have to pay unemployment insurance to the displaced workers. Are the negatives of the lost jobs in the US offset by the positive of presumably cheaper goods we’re getting from the Chinese? I don’t know – neither does Ms McArdle. I live in the US though, not in an international superstate (at least not yet) so Ms McArdle’s argument is not applicable.
Also unfortunately, the benefits from free trade make take some time to show up. Might the US be better off with some protectionist policies for the next couple decades? For the next couple years as we recover from an economic downturn and try to absorb a newly imported underclass? Ms McArdle won’t even consider such a possibility – after all, we’ll be better after a couple centuries go by. As long as we haven’t gone broken providing benefits to all unemployed in the meantime.