A Rerun

by Don Boudreaux on April 28, 2006

in Trade

A frequent commentor here at the Cafe is "Save the Rustbelt"  — and one of his frequent comments is that the remarks of college professors who endorse free trade should be discounted because we tenured professors have secure jobs.  Therefore, the insinuation proceeds, because we professors are immune to job loss, our endorsement of free trade is cheap and irresponsible.  (Put aside the fact that many tenured professors have working spouses, parents, siblings, children, and friends who are not tenured professors.)

While it’s obvious that ideas ultimately should be judged only on their merits, irrespective of the identity of their messengers, the scarcity of our intellectual capacity relative to the demands on that capacity makes it sensible for each of us to use shortcuts when evaluating arguments.  The identity of those who advance arguments — their likely stake in the acceptance or rejection of an argument — is relevant information for the less-than-omniscient persons who are evaluating the argument.

So I don’t scold Save the Rustbelt for using my tenured status as an input to help him evaluate my arguments for free trade.

But I do scold Save the Rustbelt for failing to apply the logic of his concern consistently.  I here rerun one of the very first posts I contributed to Cafe Hayek:

Who Can Speak about Trade?

Dan Drezner recently reported that readers hostile to his pro-free-trade position often kindly respond by expressing their wish that his job be outsourced.

The idea motivating such a response to those of us who defend free
trade is that people who discuss trade are blinded by their personal
experiences, unable to see the larger picture. Because Drezner is a
college professor and, it is assumed, relatively secure in his job, he
cannot speak with any legitimacy about trade and the job losses that it
causes other people.

This idea is specious.  To see why, note what happens when you turn it around.  Arguments for
protectionism are invalid if offered by someone whose job is threatened
by foreign competition. So anyone whose job is at significant risk
because of free trade has no right (this idea implies) to oppose free
trade, for he or she is blinded by personal experience.

Of course, an argument’s validity or invalidity is independent of
the identity of the person offering it. Judged on its merits – on its
logic and facts – the case for free trade is robust. If protectionists
wish to be taken seriously, they’d best abandon tawdry irrelevancies
and instead offer rational arguments backed by sound data.

Be Sociable, Share!



Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email


liberty April 28, 2006 at 6:49 pm

I am for free trade but I think that argument is false. Simply because you might discount those who are unaffected by free trade's affect on jobs doesn't mean you can discount those who *are* affected by protectionism.

Think of it this way: if you think that men cannot truly be involved in certain debates about feminism or women's issues, this doesn't mean that women cannot discuss them – whether they are for or against.

Both protectionism and free trade affect jobs, but only jobs that are able to be affected (just as both sides of feminism issues might affect only women). So, those in non-tenure jobs are affected whether you are for free trade or against (and hence for protectionism).

Personally, I think its a cop-out to say that only those affected can talk about it. And if you want to extend the argument further, you would say that arguments that refute theory that says that union jobs (or protectionism) hurts non-union (or non-protected) jobs cannot come from people in a union, because they are biased toward supporting unions.

Perhaps that is what you meant Don.

liberty April 28, 2006 at 6:54 pm

In other words, if it is *not being affected by the unintended consequences* that is at issue, your example is at least worded wrong.

You should say that arguments that discount the effect of protectionism on non-protected industries cannot come from people working in protected industries.

d April 28, 2006 at 10:29 pm

Should only unemployed economists write about unemployment, and employed economists about employment? And only those currently losing or gaining jobs, write about shifts in employment?

And I think a person who loses his job to free trade has to first prove that he lost his job to free trade to begin with: that particular job and that particular company might not have survived anyways. Before instituting the gag order.

But I think people should speak freely. (But I wish Lou Dobbs would shut up)

save_the_rustbelt April 28, 2006 at 10:56 pm

Thanks for noticing.

Perhaps I should amend the argument, one can tout "free trade" (which doesn't exist) as long as one touts a means to clean up the damage.

Perhaps I'm a tad unusual having spent plenty of time in academia (non-tenured) and also on the business end of a shovel and a pipe wrench. I actually know some blue collar workers. People whose jobs are being destroyed are not abstractions to me.

I'm not against trade, it will continue to grow, I just think the richest country in the world can do a better job in the transition. Ohio and Michigan are in the 5th year of a 1 year recession, and I don't see many economists offering solutions (and technically we may not be in a recession, we just lead the nation in bankruptcies and foreclosures).

I've read countless discussions about displaced workers, but have yet to see a solution. The Bush administration is all giggly because they are replacing $20-an-hour jobs with $9-an-hour jobs.

We are told that the priviledge of buying cheap stuff at Wal-Mart makes up for sinking wages and stolen pensions. Yeah.

Anyway, thanks for noticing, and I'll continue reading, love a good debate, even with the sheltered professoriate.

save_the_rustbelt April 28, 2006 at 10:58 pm

"less-than-omniscient persons who are evaluating the argument."

Sticks and stones…. :-) )

Nade April 28, 2006 at 11:38 pm

thats about the same stupid argument when you say " wow this movie sucks" or " this painting is ugly", and ppl to say " dont say that you are not able to even do one" …AND?

I dont need to be a director to say a movie sucks, a dont need to be a painter to say a painting sucks , i dont need to be a cook to say that my meal is bad , thats just plain stupid.

A argument has to be based on facts , the facts shows Free trade is good , so it is.
Sometimes there is ppl who suffers from it, but on the large scale we all benefit from it.

Scott April 29, 2006 at 12:43 am

save_the_rustbelt, I'm curious to know what you meant by ""free trade" (which doesn't exist)". Could you please elaborate?

Aaron Krowne April 29, 2006 at 1:38 am

My new goal in life is to have my very own Cafe Hayek "debunking" post by Don =)

Mike April 29, 2006 at 8:28 am


I am a tenure-tracked college professor – and one reason I am leaving my job is that I think tenure promotes a culture of stagnation at less than stellar institutions (like mine). I am actually setting out on an adventure to start an innovative new college (I'm not kidding here) and I relish the competitive challenges I will be faced with.

That's not my point however. My comment here is about your feelings on displaced workers. I find it to be intellectually dishonest.

(1) Sure, you care about these workers, but why are they any more special than workers who are currently working at jobs paying $6.00 per hour?

(2) To be consistent, shouldn't you be looking to these displaced workers and be asking them for retribution for sticking it to their employers and American consumers for so long? As long as those jobs were protected, companies were paying $20 per hour for something that is only worth $9 per hour and consumers were feeling the "pain" of that.

(3) Ignoring the issue of free-trade, should we all be supporting workers who have been displaced due to technology? As has been demonstrated ad nauseum, there is not one bit of difference between free trade and changes in technology.

(4) Where is the fairness in forcing taxpayers to make compensating payments to workers who have been displaced from trade? Many of the people paying these taxes are WORSE off than those displaced workers we are talking about. I don't see how that is fair.

(5) You say it is OK to champion free trade so long as we intend to clean up the damage. Your use of the term damage is troublesome. Many activities that produce items/services that we find attractive also end up producing some negative side effects. What makes the case for "fixing" the damage from free trade (if I grant you that it is damage, which I do not necessarily agree with) any more compelling than fixing the "damage" from other net positive wealth creating processes? Remember that resources are scarce.

(6) How come displaced workers are NEVER looked at when their jobs are outsourced or technology improves? Everyone is presented with the same choices (yeah, you'll disagree with that) and these workers chose to work in industries where their jobs were less secure. I chose academia initially because I foresaw the big demographic changes and the continued importance of education and believed that it would be an area where my contributions would be valued for a very long time. Surely you don't mean to say that rustbelt workers aren't intelligent enough to look forward? Furthermore, the way employment actually works is not the way many envision it. There isn't a menu of jobs out there and we simply pick what job we want to interview for – that is the "seen" effect of a more dynamic phenomenon. What happens is that we all must convince somebody (ultimately consumers) that we can offer services that they should be willing to pay for. What is it that has caused so many Americans to misconstrue how the labor market really works? Why are we insulating people from the reality that success in the world comes only from this type of creativity? Do we think that the CEOs and Presidents of companies simply applied for these pre-existing jobs? No, I don't think anyone would claim that. They took risks and they have a unique set of skills that allow them to start or run companies that provide valuable services to customers. Sure, not everyone can be Bill Gates, but each and every one of us can think of ways to do our jobs more efficiently – and I don't see anything unfair about expecting people to live up to this challenge.

So, I hope you enjoy this debate with a (soon to be unsheltered) faculty member.

Slocum April 29, 2006 at 1:28 pm

"Ohio and Michigan are in the 5th year of a 1 year recession, and I don't see many economists offering solutions."

The predicament of Michigan's auto-sector has little to do with free trade at this point. GM and Ford are mostly losing business to non-union transplants rather than imports. The transplants enjoy two huge advantages — lower wages AND no legacy costs (they have younger, healthier workforces and almost NO retirees). Protectionist measures could not change that. (Foreign imports are also not what has bankrupted the legacy airlines).

And it's NOT the case that college professors may not threatened by technological change or outsourcing. The idea that the only way to learn something is to relocate for four years and try to stay awake in the back of lecture halls (at such a huge expense that it may hobble you financially for a decade) is one that may not last long. If alternate methods of certification get established as acceptable to employers, look out.

Ivan Kirigin April 29, 2006 at 1:59 pm

If anything, the positions of academics show the idiocy of hating outsourcing. Fact is, there is room for university professors here and abroad, and having better professors abroad makes research here _better_.

If a professor reads a good paper from abroad, or goes to a conference and hears an idea, he or she can then go and make a derivative work that further pushes out the envelope. The competition isn't exclusive. It is a synergy, and everyone dedicated to expanding our knowledge and making things better wins.

The only problems are to those who won't compete. Think about the professor who just isn't smart enough to right a deeper paper. The end result is that they shouldn't be professors — their value is not as high as they thought it was.

I think unskilled labor has an overly large ego. Their value is actually that of the foreigner who is willing to the same for less.

Restricting that foreigner from doing the job (whether through blocking outsourcing or immigration) doesn't make the laborer better. It only artificially makes everyone think that the labor is more valuable. It makes it worse for everyone else.

Robots should work. People should think. People should be designing, researching, making new things. That is what brains were designed for. Keeping low-skilled labor an option doesn’t push the collective abilities enough.

It’s funny to think of the fight about immigration/free trade as a preliminary fight for the Singularity – or even for the pre-singularity robotic unskilled labor explosion that should be happening in 5-20 years. If you lose the debate when the immigrant or international laborer are poorer humans, just think how hard it will be to explain why robots deserve the jobs overly intelligent humans do today…

RP April 29, 2006 at 2:54 pm

Interesting that the article assumes everyone who thinks outsourcing/offshoring is causing damage must automatically believe in protectionism. There are alternatives (free floating currencies, for one example). Putting words in our mouth gives you the argument "Yeah, we may be sheltered, but you guys are no better". Attempting to downgrade the other side (even if by your own construction) does not bolster your own position one iota, and it only points out that you haven't listened to the other side very well, if at all. Maybe getting tenure is equivalent to losing the ability to listen?

Don Boudreaux April 29, 2006 at 3:01 pm

RP — Suppose the Chinese refuse to let the yuan float against the dollar? What action, if any, to you propose for Uncle Sam?

I propose free trade: regardless of what policies are pursued by other governments, Uncle Sam should refuse to interfere with the choices of American consumers.

If you propose free trade as well, then good for you. But if you propose that Uncle Sam restrict in any way Americans' ability to choose to buy foreign goods and services, then you are a protectionist because you propose a protectionist policy.

Robert April 29, 2006 at 6:25 pm

Did anyone mention the fact that Daniel Drezner was denied tenure at the University of Chicago this past fall?

CalcaMutin April 29, 2006 at 8:03 pm

I'm also tenured, and I don't really care whether tenure existed or not. But what does tenure have to do with free-trade? Isn't tenure just a contract between willing partners. As far as I know private universities also offer it. On the other hand, free-trade (or more appropriately protectionism) has to do with the law which concerns everyone. I'm puzzled.


blink April 29, 2006 at 9:57 pm

Kudos to _liberty_ for the first post. The search for a party without some interest is almost always a red-herring, particularly with free trade and protectionism. Even those of us without jobs at stake very likely have an interest as CONSUMERS. Of course, now it appears that we are each voting ourselves a benefit at the expense of the other. I propose a different line of reasoning, which I hope could be confirmed empirically…

Even the protected worker has interests as a consumer. Perhaps the best approach is to appeal to this interest: Yes, you will suffer through a potentially arduous transition period if you lose your job. However, with a uniform policy of free trade policy, you will reap numerous benefits — small but lasting — as a consumer such that in the long run you will be better off even that with your protected job in the status quo. Now we have a different problem: how can we credibly claim that the rest of use will also relinquish our favorite protections? A Constitutional Amendment?

RP April 30, 2006 at 8:58 pm

Don – interesting how you want to allow others to peg, yet us to free trade….ok….how 'bout we let the pegs stay, but we had raised interest rates before savings went negative? I know, from your prior writings, that you think this is the closest the US will ever get to a free lunch (i.e. cheap bordering on free products)….but I know vendor financing when I see it, and I know how it ends. Penny wise, pound foolish, unless we don't really care about the whole "sound currency" thing….

cb May 1, 2006 at 11:43 am

"The transplants enjoy two huge advantages — lower wages AND no legacy costs (they have younger, healthier workforces and almost NO retirees)."

Not to mention they're better cars. Between defined benefits, bad (relatively) cars, and unions, how could GM compete. Daimler Chrysler is doing better, though, they have upgraded their product.

Don Mynack May 1, 2006 at 12:21 pm

Wow, you mean the "save_the_rustbelt" is a total dunderhead on multiple forums? This Bud's for you, "save_the_rustbelt". You've earned it.

Patrick May 10, 2007 at 5:53 am
Patrick May 10, 2007 at 5:56 am

Previous post:

Next post: