Polio vaccination and jobs

by Don Boudreaux on April 20, 2004

in Trade

50 years ago this month, Dr. Jonas Salk launched nationwide testing of his polio vaccine. Within an incredibly short time (and with help from the researches and refinements of Dr. Albert Sabin), polio was effectively wiped out as a health threat in America.

But there’s a downside: job loss. How many workers, who played by the rules, lost their jobs as a result of this development? People who built wheelchairs and crutches, who helped manufacture iron-lung machines, and who specialized in nursing polio victims – many of these people were thrown out of work by the product supplied by Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin. Some of these workers surely found comparable alternative employment quickly. Others took longer to do so. And probably some others were obliged to accept jobs at much lower pay. Maybe some of these workers never found new jobs.
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Of course, this downside is vanishingly insignificant compared to the upside of the polio vaccine. But I mention it to highlight the fact that particular jobs are eliminated by almost any economic or societal change.

Why, then, in our public discussions do we focus so obsessively on international trade as a source of job loss? When domestic consumers shift more of their spending to imports, some specific domestic jobs are lost – just as other jobs are created elsewhere in the domestic economy – but there’s nothing at all unique about trade on this front. Any – ANY – change in the pattern of consumer spending eliminates some jobs and creates others.

Do we condemn the spaying of dogs because it reduces the demand for dog catchers? Ought we to stymie research on electrical cars because, if successful, such cars will cause many workers to lose their jobs in oil fields? Should we denounce the Atkins diet because it will eliminate some jobs in factories making pasta and chocolate? Are the jobs threatened with elimination by spaying, electrical cars, the Atkins diet, and the multitude of other economic changes having nothing to do with international trade, less important to workers who hold them than are jobs held by people working in industries that compete with foreign suppliers?

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