One Anecdote is as Good as Another

by Don Boudreaux on July 7, 2004

in Politics

Already the spin on protectionist John Edwards is that his humble, working-class background – as a mill-worker’s son – makes him especially attuned to the “needs” and “concerns” of “ordinary” Americans. As Edwards himself put it: “I come … from a working family where my dad worked in a mill all his life, and I was the first to go to college and spent my whole life fighting for the same people I grew up with.”

Well, one anecdote is as good as another. (That’s the trouble with anecdotes.) So here’s another.

My father dropped out of school after the sixth grade. After a brief stint in the Air Force, he drove a bus in New Orleans, and then in the early 1960s took the job that he held until he retired in early 2001 – a pipe welder in a shipyard. After raising four children, my mom worked as a secretary and, later, as a clerk in a hardware store.

I was the first person in my family to attend college. Not counting Dr. Seuss’s tomes, I didn’t read a book cover-to-cover until I was 18 years old.

My parents were – indeed, still are – wholly apolitical. But the values that they instilled in my siblings and me apparently are quite different from the values that Sen. Edwards’s parents instilled in him.

Here, in a nutshell, is a summary of the important values that Buddy and Carolyn Boudreaux instilled in their children:

- Don’t take other people’s stuff. Stealing is wrong and it’s not made less wrong if the thief sincerely believes that his thievery is justified.

- Don’t be arrogant. Everyone is an individual, with unique histories, circumstances, and dreams. Don’t suppose that your preferences and perspective are superior to those of anyone else.

- Don’t hit other people unless they hit you first.

- Hard work and integrity will take you far.

- No one owes you anything.

- Be honest. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

- You are responsible for your own life, and that’s a full-time job. Never blame others for any misfortunes that might befall you.

- Don’t envy other people’s good fortune; and don’t apologize for your own if you earn it honestly.

This last value is especially relevant. So many pundits, academics, and politicians assume that “working” Americans envy richer, whiter-collared people.

Not once, not a single moment, during my 46 years on this planet have I heard or sensed as much as a whiff of envy from my parents about others’ greater material wealth. Not once did it dawn on me to suspect that my parents, who worked longer hours than the average American but whose family income was significantly lower, were somehow victims of anything. Indeed, my parents and their children were – are – happy and content. Always have been. Not once did it dawn on them that our family needs or deserves government favors.

When I first encountered economics, therefore, it made especially good sense to me. For example, in addition to being logically and empirically unsound, protectionism is also in-your-face unethical. Coercion is coercion, and theft is theft, regardless of the fine words used to justify it and of the rococo layers of “administrators” hired to enforce it.

In short, protectionism is a threat to hit other people first if they don’t do as you arrogantly command. It is also the taking of other people’s stuff – it is taking money from the pockets of innocent consumers and transferring the booty to people whose chief achievement is the exercise of excessive political influence.

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