Tenure and Free Trade

by Don Boudreaux on April 23, 2007

in Trade

In light of some recent comments on this post — comments questioning the legitimacy of a tenured professor endorsing free trade — I here rerun a rerun of an earlier post answering just this criticism.

A Rerun

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.


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