Stationary Bandits, Plunder, and Trade Negotiations

by Don Boudreaux on July 24, 2006

in Trade

Along with Doug Irwin, I believe that the most promising way available to further reduce restrictions on international trade is through multi-lateral trade negotiations — most notably, of course, those negotiations that take place under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.  I wish that it weren’t so; I wish that each government would on its own refuse to inflict trade restrictions on its subjects.  But that’s not what governments do.  At root, governments are stationary bandits, skilled chiefly at creating and extracting rents from innocent people.

This fact is why, despite my recognition of the practical usefulness of multi-lateral trade negotiations among representatives of most of the world’s stationary bandits, I suffer surreal disgust when I read reports such as this one in today’s Wall Street Journal.  This report is on how the Doha Round just broke down over farm subsidies and trade barriers.

These are negotiations among bandits whose bread and butter is the creation of rents — of artificial profits to be enjoyed by members of special-interest groups who can be trusted to use part of their booty to help keep each stationary bandit securely in power so that he or she can continue robbing innocent others.

So we have the spectacle of these bandits, these thugs, negotiating with each other over how much each one will reduce the plundering it inflicts on "its" citizens in return for promises from the other plunders to reduce the plundering they inflict on "their" citizens.

And because "our" plunderers damn sure won’t stop plundering me and my fellow Americans simply because it’s the right thing to do, I am, at one level, obliged to applaud when our plunderers come to the table with plunderers from elsewhere and negotiate over how they will all mutually reduce the extent of their plundering.

Finally, when these negotiations break down, we must endure explanations from one horde of plunderers that a particular form of plundering (for example, its subsidies to farmers) is in the best interest of its plundered citizens — along with explanations from "our" plunderers that our best interests are served only if "our" plunderers continue plundering us for at least as long as plunderers elsewhere plunder others.

It’s loathsome.

Be Sociable, Share!



10 comments    Share Share    Print    Email


Mike Linksvayer July 24, 2006 at 2:46 pm

I strongly agree with your sentiments above, but governments occasionally do liberalize on their own, and according to the World Bank autonomous liberalization accounted for 66% of tariff liberalization from 1983-2003, see

While I wish well for multilateral negotiations I loathe the logic of such for exactly the reasons you state.

Despite the logic of stationary bandits it seems unilateral free trade is in fact more important than pacts and is infinitely more savory.

Swimmy July 24, 2006 at 4:17 pm

I read a phrase in a review not too long ago that stuck with me: "even the most cynical public choice economist. . ."

I thought it was redundant.

I've developed a tendency to immediately turn my ears off when I hear the phrase "public interest."

Brian Moore July 24, 2006 at 4:21 pm


And thank you Mike, for some relatively optmistic news.

Hucbald July 24, 2006 at 6:50 pm

Perhaps if we didn't allow lawyers to make the laws, there would be a little less plundering.

Tim Worstall July 25, 2006 at 4:17 am

Bravo! Bravo!

Massed clapping, cries of "Encore Maestro"!

It is simply so darn difficult to get over the idea to people that it is imports that make us rich so why on earth are we taxing them?

Previous post:

Next post: