… is from page 322 of the late University of Washington economist Paul Heyne‘s undated and previously unpublished manuscript titled “Teaching Economics By Telling Stories,” as it appears in the 2008 collection of Heyne’s writings, Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion (Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman, eds.) (original emphasis):

The first lesson to be taught is that when we run across a situation we don’t like – “outrageous exploitation of sick people,” for example – we should start by asking how the situation came about and why it persists.  What’s actually going on here?  That’s an extremely important lesson: for the dinner table, the conference room, the legislative hall, and the faculty lounge as well as the economics classroom.  We all have a tendency, especially when we’re filled with indignation, to begin with the conclusions and subsequently to choose the facts that will enable us to reach our preestablished results.  That does little to promote understanding; it merely hardens opinions already held.  It does not lead to learning.  And it fosters debate rather than discussion.  Doesn’t it make far more sense to ask why, if the situation is as intolerable as it seems to be, it continues to exist?  Social phenomena are not facts of nature, like mountains.  They emerge from the choices individuals make in response to the situations they encounter, situations that are in turn largely created by the choices other people make.  If we want to change society, we must first understand it.  The first step toward understanding how markets work, and the beginning, I would say, of all social understanding, is the recognition that social phenomena are the product of particular choices in response to particular incentives.  Incentives matter!  To fix any social problem, we must alter the incentives.  To do that, we must first discover what they are.

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on May 28, 2017

in Science, Truth-seeking & ideology

… is from page 352 of Karl Popper’s 1963 collection, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge; specifically, it’s from Popper’s 1956 essay (originally a 1954 address to the Mont Pelerin Society) entitled “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles”:

Truth is not manifest; and it is not easy to come by.  The search for truth demands at least
(a) imagination
(b) trial and error
(c) the gradual discovery of our prejudices by way of (a) and (b), and of critical discussion.

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Dear Concerned Worker:

Those of us who support free trade are often accused of being callous and out-of-touch – even eggheaded – when we explain the benefits of free trade.  These benefits include avoiding the damage unleashed by protectionism – damage that is real but unseen and overlooked by nearly everyone.  In making our case for free trade, we economists are scolded for writing and speaking in ways that no worker who has just lost a job to imports would find reassuring or comforting.

I do not speak for my fellow economists or for my fellow free-traders, but I here confess to too often defending free trade poorly and with a tin ear to daily realities of workers concerned with their and their families’ livelihoods.

So, dear Concerned Worker, I write to you now when you are employed and untroubled by unusual anxiety.  I write to you as someone whose life situation allows you to reflect calmly, soberly, and maturely on not just today but, mostly, on the coming tomorrows – for as I know you know, nearly all of the rest of your life will be lived, not today, but in those tomorrows.

I know you to be someone who sees beyond today and who cares about not just what is in store for the rest of today but also about what is in store for tomorrow and the many tomorrows after that.  And I know that you love and care deeply about your kids and grandkids.  You want them to prosper and to be secure.  Indeed, your concern about tomorrows is mostly for the well-being of your children and grandchildren.  I know you also to be someone who has a sense of justice.  You aren’t someone who wishes to gain unfairly or to prosper at the expense of others who are made poorer by your prosperity.

Therefore, when I as an economist make the case for free trade, I make the case for better tomorrows.  The case for free trade has many different elements.  They are overwhelmingly, although not exclusively, about tomorrow.

In short, I write to you now as a fellow adult whose concerns and interests extend beyond the immediate here and now and beyond our own narrow self-interests.

You – dear Concerned Citizen – should support free trade because, above all, it assures prosperity as great as possible for your children and grandchildren.  But that is not all.  The protectionism that you might be tempted to support today will indeed protect those jobs that you now see and are familiar with – jobs that you and your wife now hold, or that your neighbors and friends now hold.  Losing these jobs would indeed be a trying experience.  But please know that if these jobs are protected today with tariffs or other trade restraints, there are fellow citizens somewhere today who will lose their jobs or who will be unable to find new employment that they would find in the absence of the tariffs.

No one can say for certain just who these unfortunate fellow citizens are who lose their jobs.  But we know they exist.  Economics tell us that they exist.  We know these fellow citizens thrown out of jobs exist because the tariffs that protect your job cause foreigners to have fewer dollars to spend or to invest in America.  That reduced spending and investment – spending and investment reduced throughout our country – is what causes some fellow citizens to suffer the same trying fate (temporary job loss) from which the tariffs today protect you.

Perhaps you’re untroubled by this injustice, but trusting that you are a decent and good person, I’m confident that, now that you know that the protection of your current job comes at the expense of some fell0w Americans’ current jobs, your support for tariffs is less enthusiastic.

In a moment of actual job loss, your concern for your fellow citizens might well give way, understandably so, to a greater concern for yourself and your family – and so you’ll support tariffs to protect your job.  But when your job is not at any immediate risk of being destroyed – when you can reflect (as mature people must do if democracy is to work well) on the wider and longer picture – you, I hope, will oppose tariffs as a matter of principle because you oppose privileges given to some at the expense of others.

Yet even if you’re less able than I believe you to be to consider government policies from a broader perspective than your own narrow material interest, knowing what I just told you about the effects of tariffs should still lead you to support free trade.  If your job isn’t today threatened by imports, some other Americans’ jobs – jobs held by Americans whom you do not know – are almost surely being destroyed by imports.  And so if tariffs are used to protect those jobs, it’s very possible that among the American jobs that will soon be destroyed by those tariffs is your own.

And even if those tariffs do not destroy your job, they will almost certainly reduce your real wages, today and into the future.  The tariffs will raise the prices of the goods and services that you buy for you and your family.  The tariffs will work as a pay cut for you.  Actually seeing this pay cut and understanding its source are nearly impossible without understanding the basic economics of trade.  But once you understand this economics, you know the pay cut to be real.

In short, economics teaches that your enlightened self-interest should lead you to support free trade.

Yet the case for free trade is even stronger if you care about your children and grandchildren (as, again, I know you do, very much).  Even if you couldn’t care less about fellow Americans who suffer temporary unemployment as a result of the tariff that protects your job, and even if you don’t care one bit about your and other Americans’ loss of purchasing power today that is caused by tariffs, these tariffs ensure that the economic opportunities open to your children and grandchildren will be fewer and worse than they would be without tariffs.

Tariffs keep resources locked into – to use language that is popular in the media and on the campaign trail – ‘the industries and jobs of yesterday’.  By keeping labor and other resources locked into existing, protected industries, tariffs prevent the creation and growth of newer, more innovative, and more productive industries.  Similarly, because tariffs shrink the size of the market to which domestic producers have access, tariffs artificially prevent many firms that would otherwise expand to achieve larger and more-efficient sizes of operations from doing so.  The productivity of workers in these firms is thereby kept artificially low, which means that the wages of workers in these firms is kept artificially low.  (You yourself might be among the workers whose wages are kept artificially low by tariffs.  And unless you understand the basic economics of trade, you’ll never even suspect that this unfortunate possibility might be real.)

Over time, the inefficiencies and stagnation caused by protectionism accumulate.  By the time your children are in their prime working years, the opportunities open to them will be much worse than these opportunities would be had tariffs not been in place in the past to protect the jobs and industries of your children’s past.  The tariffs that are in place today, to put it bluntly, will ensure that tomorrow your children are working in the past.

This denial of opportunity and prosperity that your children suffer because of tariffs will be even worse for your grandchildren.  The stagnation and rot of tariffs accumulate over time.  (Don’t forget: the entire point of tariffs is to protect today’s jobs and firms from the forces of economic competition and from economic change.)  This reality is one of the important lessons of economics that is surely of no comfort today when your job is in peril because of foreign trade but that is, surely, of great significance for those of us who care not just about today and not just about ourselves, but who care also about tomorrow, about others, and, especially, about our children and grandchildren.

I’ve tried your patience with this letter, dear Concerned Worker.  So I’ll end here.  As I say above, the case for free trade – the case against protectionism – has many more elements in addition to those briefly summarized above.  They all reinforce the points mentioned here.

I wish you well.  And I know that you, too, wish well for others – those others who are already born and those many, many others who are still to arrive with hopes of long, healthy, peaceful, and flourishing lives.

Don Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University

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Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on May 28, 2017

in Economics

… is from pages 326-327 of the late University of Washington economist Paul Heyne‘s undated and previously unpublished manuscript titled “Teaching Economics By Telling Stories,” as it appears in the 2008 collection of Heyne’s writings, Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion (Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman, eds.):

But a mastery of the formalities is not the same as really understanding how markets work.  I have known dozens of economics students, many of them graduate students, whose command of technical theory would earn them an A grade in an economics course, who were incapable of seeing how this theory illuminated the working of actual economic systems.

DBx: Economics, properly and productively done, is driven less by a concern to describe ‘the’ economy and much more by the desire to understand the forces at work that enable, today, billions of people to cooperate in an orderly and productive way in a globe-spanning economy marked by a deep division of labor and division of knowledge.

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Economists Are Not Therapists

by Don Boudreaux on May 27, 2017

in Economics

Re-reading Paul Moroni’s original comment (addressed here), this line struck me:

The arrogance of economists like DBx who say ‘you should be fine looking your wife and kids in the face after being layed [sic] off because now iPhones are cheaper’ is the reason no one likes listening to free trade diatribes. They miss the point and talk past peoples actual concerns.

For the first time I see something that I don’t recall seeing in the past – namely, economists who endorse free trade are often criticized, as they are here, for not being emotional or psychological or spiritual therapists.

I have nothing against such therapists.  I have nothing against people who use such therapists.  Such therapists, I’m sure, often do genuine good for those suffering loss, grief, anguish, anger, anxiety, fear, or depression.  But I’m an economist and not a therapist.  My job is to address people’s actual concerns insofar as these concerns are about how the economy actually works and what are the likely consequences of government interventions.  My job is not to sugar coat reality.  My job is not to hide reality from the public.  And it certainly isn’t to distort reality.  (Politicians and media personalities do quite enough of that.)

So I ask myself: what is meant by the charge that free traders “miss the point and talk past people’s actual concerns”?  I honestly can think of nothing that we free traders do not often say but that we should say on this front.  Clearly, we cannot agree with the protectionists who promise to protect particular, visible jobs.  It’s our job to point to the many unseen ill-consequences of such protection (including, again, destroyed jobs elsewhere in the domestic economy).  While I understand that a worker who loses his or her job because of expanded international trade is likely upset and anxious and unappeased by knowing that consumers are better off and that some fellow citizens will, as a result of the government not raising tariffs, not lose their jobs, I do not understand what an economist is supposed to say other than what we already say.

In such situations free-trade economists point out all sorts of upsides of free trade – upsides that even are likely for the currently aggrieved unemployed worker and his or her children.  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about their prospects as consumers?  The case for free trade touches frequently upon this matter, explaining how those prospects are improved by trade.  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about their children’s and grandchildren’s future prosperity?  The case for free trade touches frequently upon this matter, explaining how free trade creates a brighter and more prosperous future for their children and grandchildren.  (See Russ Roberts’s brilliant book, The Choice.)  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about cronyism and government granting privileges to the few at the expense of the many?  The case for free trade touches frequently upon this matter, explaining how a policy of free trade reduces cronyism and special privileges.  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about war?  The case for free trade touches – although not frequently enough – upon this matter, explaining that increased international commerce reduces the likelihood of war.

But of course the worker laid off today is also concerned about how to find another job and to keep his or her family from suffering material deprivation.  I get this fact.  I understand it.  I realize that it’s a wholly justified concern.  My shipyard-pipefitter father – who had a wife and four children and his own father to care for – was laid off several times when I was a child, once for a very long period.  But to this concern – which, again, I’m aware is real and justified – the economist has nothing to say.  The economist is neither a therapist nor a jobs counsellor.  The economist also isn’t a pastor.  And if the economist does in such a situation attempt to mold his economics to make it sure to appeal to the anxious and angry laid-off worker, the only result will be very bad economics spilling out of the mouth of, or off of the keyboard of, that economist.


The economist serves society best by busting myths.  Economic myths are distressingly plentiful, in part because they almost always serve the interests of politically powerful special interest groups.  If and to the extent that economists perform this job well, the best that can be hoped for is that public policy will improve over time (or, at least, the decline in the quality of public policy will be slowed).  If the general public comes even a bit more to reject a widespread myth – say, the one that holds that imports only destroy domestic jobs without fueling the creation of other domestic jobs – then trade policy might improve, if only a bit, as a result.  But any such improvement will come as a result of policy being influenced by, and made by, people who aren’t in the midst of a crisis.  Workers losing their jobs today to imports are almost certainly going to press for government protection of their jobs if government is seen as appropriately standing ready to offer such protection.  Nothing an economist – if he or she sticks to being a good economist – can say will causes these workers to change their attitudes and demands. Nothing the economist can say in this situation will prevent government from raising tariffs to protect those particular jobs.  The good economist can hope only to influence ideas that hold sway over the long-run.  Ideally, on matters of trade, the economist can hope to create a future in which people’s ideology simply will not tolerate government doling out the special privilege called “trade protection.”

Finally – and to be clear – I have never said anything remotely akin to what Mr. Moroni accuses me of saying, namely, “you should be fine looking your wife and kids in the face after being laid off because now iPhones are cheaper.”  And not only have I never said such a stupid thing, I have never even thought it.  Moreover, I know of no serious economist who writes or speaks in support of free trade who has said such an idiotic thing.  And so to suppose that such a thing is what we free traders believe is to reveal a deep misunderstanding of the case for free trade.

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Who’s Arrogant?

by Don Boudreaux on May 27, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Trade

If you’re going to criticize the case for free trade, please try to understand the case that you’re criticizing.  Blasting criticism at a half-baked or caricaturish version of the case for free trade invariably misses the mark, widely.  Paul Moroni, a commenter on this Cafe Hayek post, criticizes only what he wrongly believes to be the case for free trade; because he doesn’t understand what he is criticizing, his criticism misses the mark, widely.  Here’s Mr. Moroni’s comment in full:

This is why free traders like DBx and Worstoll never get anywhere with their arguments. Increasing access to goods and services may be the purpose of economic activity. But for Worstoll to talk of the ‘point of it all’ is to miss the point for very many people. People want jobs. They want thw dignity that comes with work. The (temporary) economic dislocation that comes with growth can derail peoples entire lives. The arrogance of economists like DBx who say ‘you should be fine looking your wife and kids in the face after being layed off because now iPhones are cheaper’ is the reason no one likes listening to free trade diatribes. They miss the point and talk past peoples actual concerns.

Here’s my reply (also in the comments section of that earlier post):

Mr. Moroni: You see only those workers whose jobs are artificially protected by tariffs. Why do you ignore the workers whose jobs are destroyed by tariffs? Do they not suffer when they must look their families in the face to confess to having lost jobs? Is the reduction in the incomes of those families of no moment to you? You misinterpret the case for free trade to be exclusively about identifying the reduction over time in consumption opportunities; that is indeed a big part of it. But the case for free trade also identifies producers – workers, entrepreneurs, investors – who lose specific jobs, opportunities, and incomes as an inevitable result of protectionism. So one difference between, on one hand, people such as Tim Worstall and myself and, on the other hand, you, is that we recognize that the losses inflicted by protectionism are larger and spread more widely than you recognize these losses to be.

One more matter: what dignity is there in using force to deny opportunities to other people simply in order to better ensure that those people patronize you as a producer? Anyone who finds dignity in such a situation doesn’t know what dignity is – and is not deserving of dignity.

Let me here add two more points (each of which will be familiar to regular patrons of Cafe Hayek).

First, specific jobs are destroyed (and created) by any and all economic change, not just by economic change that is connected with international trade.  If saving workers from the difficulties, financial and emotional, of losing jobs is a sufficient justification for government to obstruct voluntary exchanges, then Mr. Moroni (like the vast majority of protectionists) is far too modest when proposing government intervention: he should want government to stop all economic change because the concerns that motivate his opposition to free trade arise with all economic change.

When people reduce their likelihood of smoking, some workers in cigarette factories lose their jobs.  So the logic of Mr. Moroni’s argument should lead him to endorse government policies that prevent people from giving up smoking and from discouraging their children from smoking.  When automotive technology improves such that automobiles need fewer tune-ups, the logic of Mr. Moroni’s argument should lead him to endorse government polices to suppress technological improvements (in order to save auto mechanics the embarrassment and indignity of having to tell their families that they’ve lost their jobs).  When couples start having fewer children than couples had in the past, the logic of Mr. Moroni’s argument should lead him to endorse government policies that obstruct couple’s voluntary decisions about how many children to have (in order to save obstetric and pediatric nurse, child-care workers, and workers in baby-food plants from the embarrassment and indignity of having to tell their families that they’ve lost their jobs).

Second, if free traders are, as Mr. Moroni alleges, “arrogant,” then what word should we use to describe the officiousness of protectionists who presume to interfere with the ways that peaceful people engage in commerce?  Is it arrogant of Tim Worstall to defend the rights of peaceful people to buy and sell as they choose?  Is it arrogant of me to argue that government should not discriminate against commerce that happens to be transacted across political boundaries?  Is it arrogant to defend economic freedom and to warn that protectionist policies invariably are cronyist policies that benefit the select, politically powerful few at the greater expense of the invisible and unheard many?

It is a strange argument indeed that classifies those of us who wish to let all peaceful people be free to buy and sell as they choose as “arrogant,” and those who advocate government obstruction of the ways that peaceful people spend their money as not-arrogant.  Very strange indeed.

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… is from pages 146-147 of Robert Higgs’s Winter 2001 Independent Review article, “Unmitigated Mercantilism,” as it is reprinted in the excellent 2004 collection of some of Bob’s essays, Against Leviathan:

Gather round, children, and I will tell you in words you all can understand how the Eximbank works.  (1) The government takes money from American taxpayers and gives it to the Eximbank.  (2) The Eximbank gives the money to institutions that lend to the Chinese and Saudi Arabian companies that buy airplanes from the Boeing Company.  (3) Boeing (maybe) sells a few more airplanes than it would have sold in the absence of the export-credit subsidies.  (4) A few people work at the Boeing Company who otherwise would have worked elsewhere.  (5) Boeing shareholders earn a little more income, which otherwise would have been earned (plus a bit more) by other producers.  (6) The total amount of wealth created in the United States – and in the world as a whole – is less than it would have been had these financial shenanigans never taken place.  (You kids will understand that last point after you take Economics 101.)

Naturally, any such economically absurd and politically predatory subsidy scheme has a high probability of having been created during the New Deal, and the Eximbank is no exception.  Back in 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking a way to finance U.S. exports to the Soviet Union.  Private financiers, cognizant that the Communists had repudiated debts owed by the preceding regime, were unwilling to throw good money after bad.  The New Dealers, on the other hand, relished such opportunities, and, as usual, well-connected business interests worked assiduously to get their snouts under the Treasury’s tent.

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Tim Worstall – correcting a popular yet poisonous economic myth recently regurgitated by Mark Zuckerberg – explains about economic growth that “it simply isn’t true that we want to create jobs, that’s not the point of it all. Quite the opposite in fact, we want to destroy jobs, destroy as many as we can.”  Increasing our access to goods and services that satisfy as many human wants as possible is economic-activity’s purpose; laboring to achieve this purpose is among the means.  (HT Anthony Onofreo)

Here’s George Selgin on saving the dollar.

George Will read Sen. Ben Sasse’s new book.  A slice:

In the long-running rivalry between the realist and romantic views of human nature, Sasse is firmly with the former. This aligns him against those who believe that schooling should be “a substitute for parents” as life’s “defining formative institution.” In the progressive view of education with which the philosopher John Dewey imbued the United States’ primary and secondary schools, parents “with their supposedly petty interests in their children as individuals” are deemed retrograde influences, hindering schools’ mission of making malleable young people outfitted with the proper “social consciousness.” Schools should embrace the need of “controlling” students and “the influences by which they are controlled.” Parents must be marginalized lest they interfere with education understood, as Sasse witheringly says, as “not primarily about helping individuals, but rather about molding the collective.”

Brittany Hunter likes Tina Fey’s new show, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Here’s Matt Ridley on academic fads and prejudices.

GMU Econ alum Anne Bradley ponders the calamity that is today’s Venezuela.

My colleague Bryan Caplan argues that nationalist enthusiasms are, alas, not new.  In this post Bryan quotes the historian Carlton Hayes (1882-1964), for example (from Hayes’s 1926 essay “Nationalism as a Religion“):

“My country, right or wrong, my country!” Thus responds the faithful nationalist to the magisterial call of his religion, and thereby he intends nothing dubious or immoral. He is merely making a subtle distinction between governmental officials who may go wrong and a nation which, from the inherent nature of things, must ever be right. It would sound pedantic for him to say, “my nation, indicatively right or subjunctively wrong (contrary to fact), my nation!” Indeed, to the national state are now popularly ascribed infallibility and impeccability. We moderns are prepared to grant that all our fellow countrymen may individually err in conduct and judgement, but we are loath to admit that our nation as a whole can make mistakes. We are willing to assail the policies and even the characters of some of our politicians, but we are stopped by the faith that is in us from doubting the Providential guidance of our national state. This is the final mark of the religious nature of modern nationalism.

On a recent trip to Raleigh, NC, I visited with my friends at the John Locke Foundation where I had a short discussion of trade deficits with Mitch Kokai.

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… is from pages 97-98 of the 2015 Matthew Dale translation of Weiying Zhang’s superb 2010 book, The Logic of the Market:

Bad policies that arise from vested interests – or policies set for one’s own interests – are also ubiquitous.  Trade protectionist policies are a classic example.  Because some enterprises and workers are threatened by competition, they use various means to persuade the government to limit trade freedom to protect their own interests.  Of course, pursuing one’s own interests is not a problem as long as personal happiness is attained by first creating value for others according to market rules.  The bad policies that arise from the vested interests to which I refer are the policies whose results do not lead to attaining profit by creating value for others; instead, they sacrifice other people’s interests in order to attain income.  Therefore, they are bad policies.  Trade protectionism makes the majority of consumers subsidize a small number of producers (and the workers who are employed by those enterprises).

DBx: Rapists, thugs, and thieves improve their lives by using coercion or threats of coercion to reduce the range of options available to others.  Civilized, peaceful, and productive people improve their lives by using commerce to expand the range of options available to others.  Neither the raw facts of the matter nor the ethics of these alternative courses of action are altered one bit if the rapists, thugs, and thieves hire well-dressed agents to carry out their schemes and rename these plunderous schemes “trade policy.”

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Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross writes that “because American auto tariffs are so much lower than those of other countries, the only way U.S. trade negotiators can get trading partners to reduce their tariffs is by giving concessions against other U.S. industries.  This, then, requires the government to pick winners and losers in our own economy” (Letters, May 26).  This passage is a parade of verbal chicanery.

First, U.S. tariff reductions are not “concessions against other U.S. industries.”  U.S. tariff reductions are a restoration of freedom, and of opportunities to prosper, to American consumers – and, by the way, also to the many U.S. industries that are necessarily harmed by tariffs.

Second, Uncle Sam’s picking of winners and losers occurs not when it reduces some tariffs but, instead, when it imposes tariffs in the first place.  Each tariff creates government-picked visible winners whose booty comes at the larger expense of many unseen losers.  Therefore, reducing or eliminating any tariff, contrary to Mr. Ross’s claim, gets government further out of the cronyist business of picking winners and losers.  Put differently, criticizing reductions in a subset of tariffs as ‘picking winners and losers’ is akin to criticizing a thief’s decision to reduce the number of people he robs as ‘picking winners and losers.’

Either way, however, if Mr. Ross really is so deeply disturbed by government picking winners and losers, an easy and unambiguous solution is available: eliminate all tariffs and other import restraints unconditionally.  Problem solved.  Indeed, until and unless government follows this free-trade policy it will necessarily be picking winners and losers.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

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