by Don Boudreaux on December 26, 2006

in Trade

I’ve never liked the term we English-speakers use to describe that coalition of people who believe — or who claim to believe — that general prosperity is enhanced when government prevents citizens from buying foreign-made products.  This term, of course, is "protectionists."  We call "protectionists" that gaggle of fools, opportunistic politicians, and greedy producers who assert that the path to prosperity is paved with monopoly privileges.

Trouble is that "protectionist" sounds so, well, inoffensive.  Who’s against being protected?

David Henderson, editor of the indispensable Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, long ago told me that he never uses the deceptively innocent-sounding term "protectionist" to describe the forces that put their faith in monopoly power.  I liked his idea, but because "protectionist" is so well-established as the label for identifying the pro-monopoly crowd — for identifying the crowd that asserts that economic relevance is found in political borders — I have freely used the term "protectionist" to describe these plunderers.

But I wonder if another, better term is available.  My friend Marshall Fritz suggests the term "barrierist."  While this term has the great advantage of being closer to the truth –  the anti-free-trade crowd really believes that magic can be performed by barriers to commerce — "barrierist" doesn’t trip smoothly off the tongue.  In the abstract, it’s a better term than "protectionist," but I wonder if an even better term is available.

Please suggest better terms in the comments section.

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JT December 26, 2006 at 10:32 pm

How about emcumbrancers, impedimentarians, or simply a**holes.

Don Luskin December 26, 2006 at 10:51 pm

Don, you said it yourself right in this posting: "anti free trade." Why search for a word that makes it seem as though these people stand "for" anything? What is key is what they are against: free trade.

Lee December 26, 2006 at 11:30 pm

Well, the obvious choice for me is "obstructionists." It has negative connotations *and* rhymes "destructionists."

Daniel Lurker December 26, 2006 at 11:36 pm

Chauvenistic, obstructionist and xenophobic seem appropriate to me.

Kind of ironic to see a Hayekian try to mess with as evolutionary a process as language, though it seems to work when spinsters do it (eg, the shift from "Climate Change" to "Global Warming"). What do they know about social change that we don't?

Russell Nelson December 27, 2006 at 1:03 am

Well, the best hack would be to get them to adopt a name which is clearly derogatory to anybody who understands economics, but which they are proud of having.

Obviously "FuckWit" is not one of those names, even though it's the most accurate name I can come up with.

Bruce G Charlton December 27, 2006 at 1:33 am

Protectionism = Vote-buying, or more mildly Pressure Group Politics.

But the main problem suffered by free trade is that people simply don't understand the logic. As a physician/ scientist I have only understood FT for about 10 years (I am 47) after reading Matt Ridley's Origins of Virtue (Ridley is also a biologist but worked for The Economist). He described Comparative Advantage, and I couldn't believe it, so spent a few days trying to think of exceptions – and by failing to do so was 'converted' to free trade.

People need some level of understanding of this kind of argument for free trade to become a more universal aspiration.

umesh patil December 27, 2006 at 1:37 am

I agree with you Dude.

Joseph Steinberg December 27, 2006 at 2:17 am


Martin December 27, 2006 at 2:22 am


Python December 27, 2006 at 2:52 am


There is little patriotic about trying to legalize backward thinking. Defending one's country does not have to entail obstructing the flow of goods or information across it's borders. But in case I have misinterpreted your one word comment, I also find little wrong in truly being patriotic in a society that has arguably brought about more positive change than any other in history.

Isaac Crawford December 27, 2006 at 5:04 am

There is a ready made word for these people, and it already has a negative connotation to the public at large, it is monopolist. You described it in your post, but the term didn't come up… I think that it is both descriptive and informative.


Brad Hutchings December 27, 2006 at 5:21 am

How about Dobbsians? Sooner or later, the guy is going to so step on his ^%$# that association of these backward views with the name will more than reinforce their foolishness. The whole strict father schtick is worn anyway. If his show were in black and white, viewers would wonder if he and Mrs. Dobbs sleep in separate twin beds.

William December 27, 2006 at 7:41 am

How about "trade defeatist"? Protectionists are always claiming that America's downfall will be from trade, that foreign countries are "beating" us by exporting more stuff.

triticale December 27, 2006 at 8:11 am

Isn't a "barrierist" somebody who works at an upscale coffee shop?

lowcountryjoe December 27, 2006 at 8:21 am

Protectionists are so phony. If you ever debate a protectionist on more than one occasion you can get them to show their true xenophobic colors on the second time around. On the second occasion just innoculously discuss commerce between the United States and any European country without tipping your hand as to what direction you're going. You will notice how warmly they'll speak of 'this type' commerce. Once you get them incriminate themselves enough that's when you shift gears and ask how 'that type' of commerce is any different than say the version where the U.S. trades with China or Mexico. Amid their confusion of what just transpired follow up with the following question: "Do people trade with one another to make themselves worse off than they were before?"

This tactic will lead to more discussion but in the end you will have boiled it down to one of two underlying motives for being protectionists — they either are xenophobic (the more likely of the two) or they really prefer the state to the private and think that central planning is a preferable economic system to capitalism.

John Konop December 27, 2006 at 8:47 am


We have an unholy alliance between many leaders of the Republican and Democratic Party who have sold out our Country to finance their campaigns to maintain power. This policy may help the stock market yet has hurt the average American family. They have pitted Small business and Middle Class America against overseas workers and illegal immigrants with limited rights.

Adam Smith the one of the fathers of the free market system in his Book Wealth of Nations (which is used most universities economics programs) talks about the right of workers to negotiate wages as a key principal in a free market economy.

Yet both Parties with the help of many bought and paid for economist never mention this principal when they talk about trade or immigration policy. Economist and Politicians act baffled as to why real wages are going backwards around the world as we do trade deals ( NAFTA, CAFTA WTO CHINA…) with Countries that have workers who are treated like slaves competing with Americans. They are even more surprised as to why wages would be hurt by an unlimited supply of workers (visa) legal and (Illegal immigrants) illegal with very few rights also pitted against Americans.

The only solution is real trade and immigration reform that does not over supply our Country with workers and pit Americans against overseas child and slave labor. What do you think?

james higham December 27, 2006 at 8:51 am

I'm not arguing about monopolists but do you think there's ever a situation where a fledgling company is trying to make a start in a new field the governmetn would like to see encouraged but it's in danger of being swamped by foreign competition? Is there ever a case for short term protection?

Marshall Fritz, Fresno December 27, 2006 at 9:13 am


You write: "Kind of ironic to see a Hayekian try to mess with as evolutionary a process as language"

Sorry, I fail to see any irony. Perhaps my understanding of Hayek is too low, but why shouldn't an Austrian of any flavor decline to be involved in the development of language?


Anand December 27, 2006 at 9:27 am

Extending Marshall's argument, why should anyone arrogantly assume that he or she's outside this process of evolution? It takes some humility to understand that we are all 'part' of the evolutionary process: language or otherwise. Evolution happens because of us, not despite us.

JohnDewey December 27, 2006 at 9:29 am

james highham: "a fledgling company is trying to make a start in a new field the governmetn would like to see encouraged but it's in danger of being swamped by foreign competition"

Why should a government want to encourage a business? Other than for military defense contracts, I just don't understand why the government should influence the free market.

If foreign manufacturers can provide a good at a far cheaper price – that's what you mean by "swamped", right? – then why would anyone in the U.S. wish to compete with them? More importantly, why should the consumers of those goods be forced to pay more?

John F. Opie December 27, 2006 at 9:35 am

Hi -

Some not so bad comments, but fundamentally:

Monopoly lobbyists


trade scoundrels

And there is the saying that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel: when all of the arguments are used up, wrap yourself up in the flag and call for mother and apple pie. Who can be against those sacred values?

matt December 27, 2006 at 9:39 am

Call it tradism. Sayings like "You tradist pig!" will be common among the laymen… Terms like "soft tradism" will become powerful political weapons.

JohnDewey December 27, 2006 at 9:42 am

JohnKonop: "The only solution is real trade and immigration reform that does not over supply our Country with workers and pit Americans against overseas child and slave labor. What do you think?"

In the first place, I doubt that the WalMarts of the world are knowingly buying very much if anything that is produced by slave labor.

If American consumers are opposed to buying the products of "child" labor, then they should have the right to not buy those products. But if other Americans are not opposed, then they should be able to buy whatever they wish. It should not be the U.S. government's role to force Americans to live by your set of morals.

If you oppose the use of "child" labor – which is likely to be teenagers – then you are free to picket WalMart, to expose the "abuse" by foreign manufacturers, and to otherwise influence consumers. But you should not be allowed to enlist the federal government in enforcing your desires.

What's really wrong with child labor? I've known many children who worked in this country in my lifetime.

- Some worked on farms and ranches.
- Some worked in small businesses.
- Some delivered newspapers.
- Some sold products they produced on the side of the road.

I personally worked at all four jobs before I was sixteen. My life was greatly enriched as a result.

Steven Horwitz December 27, 2006 at 9:47 am


The most apt description is "rent-seekers" but given the problems with that rather confusing term, why not go to the heart of the matter?

"Privilege seekers"

After all, that is what those who lobby for protectionist legislation are doing and the nattering nabobs (or is that naDobbs?) who support it are ultimately arguing that some people should have privileges that others shouldn't.

To the degree that Americans still believe that unearned privileges are a bad thing, using the term in a derogatory way might resonate.

And, side note, there is NOTHING un-Hayekian about attempting to introduce a new word, anymore than it's un-Hayekian to innovate in the spontaneous order of the market.

Mike December 27, 2006 at 9:50 am



Hammerheads? (i.e. you agree to stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer and I'll agree to do the same)

Harbor Police?

John Konop December 27, 2006 at 10:16 am

John Dewey

Please do not let facts get in the way of your argument about slave labor. I notice you avoided how the father of free economics warned about the right of labor to negotiate.I Am sure you are smart enough to understand if you pit workers against worker with no right you delude their rights I guess the facts do not fit your world view.

Preface – Made In China.

Fateful decisions made by China’s leaders, limiting births to mostly males and forbidding farmers to tap shrinking reservoirs diverted to smog-choked cities could lead to internal strife and foreign conquest as this economic powerhouse reaches the limits of explosive growth. But US consumers continue to fund China’s military modernization, even as they erode their own economy and employment at home. Even worse, Wal-Mart shoppers are supporting forced labor camps where the healthiest inmates are executed for “organ harvesting”. Wal-Mart also buys heavily from slave labor manufacturing zones, where women workers are typically paid 3 cents an hour or less for 70 to 90-hour work weeks. See smuggled photos here. And please don’t buy any products “Made In China”.

John Konop December 27, 2006 at 10:19 am

You are the poster child for this article.

Illegal Immigration: A Rich American’s Game

This is one of the best articles I have ever read about explaining the core issue behind illegal immigration. Congress has formed an unholy alliance with the lobbyist money changers in Washington to sell out small business and the middle class. Please read this article and tell me what you think.

By Froma Harrop

RCP-There’s a popular game in America that goes, I’ll cut your wages, but you don’t cut mine. And the outsourcing of your factory job to China is a good thing, because it makes my paycheck go further at Wal-Mart. We hear this theme a lot in the debate over illegal immigration.

Consider the recent raids on Swift meat-processing plants. Federal agents arrested 1,187 illegal immigrants at facilities in six states. Mere hours later, economists warned that depriving the industry of illegal labor could raise hamburger prices.
Illegal immigration is usually presented as a win-win situation: Undocumented foreigners earn far more than they could back home. Consumers get a bargain.
Nowhere to be seen are America’s working poor who get stomped on 13 different ways. They have to compete with illegal immigrants for jobs and housing. Low-skilled natives and legal immigrants also end up subsidizing the undocumented because they tend to live in the same communities, which must provide hospitals, police, schools and garbage pickup.

Who doesn’t suffer from illegal
immigration? For starters, the people who write about it. I speak of the journalism profession, which has the habit of covering the issue by anecdotes. Reporters thrive on sympathetic stories about illegal immigrants who work hard and go to church

But, were a busload of illegals from Australia to turn up at their newspaper and offer reportage at 10 percent below the going rate, the writers would call the authorities so fast that your head would spin. And the publisher’s argument that thanks to the cheap Australians, he’s able to trim a few cents off the newsstand price would make no impression.

As it turns out, the meat-processing companies that employ so many illegal immigrants have been enjoying a nearly 50-percent discount on what was the going rate. In 1980, the average meat-processing job paid $19 an hour. The companies then moved their plants to rural areas, far from the Midwest cities and their unions. The industry’s wages now average about $9 an hour.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce likes to wail about the “labor shortage.” It says there aren’t enough chambermaids, dishwashers, etc. to work for its members at lousy wages. Odd, but when there’s a shortage of labor — or anything else — doesn’t the price of it go up? The price of unskilled labor in the United States hasn’t gone up. It’s gone down. Because of immigration, American-born high-school dropouts experienced a 5-percent loss in wages during the ’80s and ’90s, according to a study by Harvard economist George Borjas.
For some reason, the job of keeping prices low has fallen entirely on the shoulders of the most vulnerable Americans. If we banged down CEO compensation and sliced lawyers’ pay by a third, the same thing would happen. Everyone’s prices would drop. The corporation could sell its products for less, and the cost of legal services would fall.

No vocation keeps a tighter lid on immigration than the medical profession. “If we let in 100,000 immigrant doctors,” Richard Freeman, another Harvard economist, recently told a group of journalists, “everyone in this room would benefit.” Except the American doctors.
Suggest a U.S. labor policy that depresses professional pay as a means of keeping prices in check, and you get laughed out of the room. But say that sitting on the wages of unskilled factory workers stems inflationary pressure — a frequently made argument — and the PhDs quietly nod in agreement.

And that’s how the game is played. High pay for me. Low pay for you. The folks at the economic bottom are obviously not making the rules

Howard Baetjer Jr. December 27, 2006 at 10:35 am

"Obstructionists." I second Lee.

Greg December 27, 2006 at 11:04 am

I've always liked "Neo-Mercantilists."

Greg December 27, 2006 at 11:06 am

Or "monopolists" would work, too…

Lee December 27, 2006 at 11:22 am

Anand – "Evolution happens because of us, not despite us."

Actually, evolution happens because of us *and* despite us. There is no escape from the evolutionary algorithm.

OregonJon December 27, 2006 at 11:23 am

"Wall Builders".

As in the Great Wall of China (that sure worked!) or the Maginot Line (another success story). Walls, whether in war or in trade, never work.

nunyabidness December 27, 2006 at 11:29 am

Russel Nelson:

As usual, your "erudite, clever & witty" (Sarcasm here) commentary exposes the very nature of your person: petty, cheap, shallow, callous and childish. Keep up the good work – you never fail to expose your true self!

Maybe we should use the term RusselWit as an insult – it would sure be accurate.

Marcel December 27, 2006 at 11:58 am


Timothy December 27, 2006 at 12:08 pm

I've always been fond of "mercantilist" or "neomercantilist" but that might be a little to obscure and also innocent sounding.

Rafal Smigrodzki December 27, 2006 at 12:15 pm

The term should ideally be self-explanatory, using homey down-to-earth English rather than foreign-sounding jawbreakers, and at the same time have clearly negative connotations. I would suggest "trade-bashers", since generally "trade" is inoffensive or even mildly positive, therefore those who bash it must be mean.

save_the_rustbelt December 27, 2006 at 12:37 pm

I can't resist.


Doug Murray December 27, 2006 at 12:39 pm

I like Steven Horowitz's "privilige seeking" but it doesn't sound like something likely to catch on outside academia. But that's a start.

"Monopolism" probably wouldn't resonate as most people see a monopoly as applying to a single company, not an industry.

I'd suggest making use of a term that's already widespread among politicians and journalists – Corporate Welfare.

Fundamentalist December 27, 2006 at 12:40 pm

Obstructionists isn't bad. Also, how about reactionaries or regressives? Also, there's trade Amish.

The emotion behind opposition to free trade comes from the false conviction that one nation can enrich itself only at the expense of another, which is a medieval idea. We could call them medievalists.

Fundamentalist December 27, 2006 at 12:42 pm


Lee December 27, 2006 at 12:49 pm

Well, I like to think of protectionism (obstructionism or whatever) as a kind of supernatural mysticism, resulting in the position that arbitrary lines drawn on a map have the magical capacity to alter the consequences of free trade.

Randy December 27, 2006 at 1:38 pm


chinaski December 27, 2006 at 1:39 pm

How about AFTers? ( Anti-Free-Traders)

Aseem N December 27, 2006 at 2:20 pm


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Kent Gatewood December 27, 2006 at 2:22 pm

1. We run a 6% trade deficit. Judging by results, we are the least mercantilist economy on the planet.
2. Should we be discussing the Japanese, the Germans, the Chinese, the Dutch, the Russians…?
3. The Germans initially went around the Maginot Line. We got stuck against the Seigfreid Line for months.

Bill December 27, 2006 at 3:59 pm

Give them their historical due: Colbertists

Russell Nelson December 27, 2006 at 4:29 pm

nunyabidnes: clearly you are one of the people to whom I was refering, otherwise you wouldn't be so ofended. By the way, Russell is speled with two of the leter L's. Ever considered cuting-n-pasting since your brain is so smal it can't hold two L's at the same time? Words lok funy when you leave out repeated leters, don't they?

Swimmy December 27, 2006 at 5:14 pm

I dislike "neo-mercantilists" because it suggests there is some substantial difference between the modern position and the original mercantilists.

In defense of protectionism (the word, not the ideology): The question, "Who's against being protected?" is easy enough to answer. I am! Especially since we're discussing protection from competition. It would be better to find a word which conveys this sense of protection from a good thing, but protectionist is literally appropriate.

"Comprotectionist"? "Wall-builder" is interesting, conjures a few images of Berlin. "Laissez-phobe" has a really nice ring.

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