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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speedmaster April 23, 2007 at 8:30 am

>> "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."

Well, I'm not tenured and I agree w/ you. Doesn't the argument fall apart pretty quickly under even basic scrutiny?

Matt C. April 23, 2007 at 8:56 am

My first job was outsourced, but I didn't give up on Free Trade. Actually, since then I have become much more vehemetly free trade.

I would also like to point out is that tenure allows professors to speak and teach freely. That way they can't lose their job if the government or the school disagree with something that they taught. It has nothing to do with a job guarantee other than you can't be fired for disagreeing with the schools administration. Granted that this does come back to haunt some schools because of poor teaching of the professors. But this is corrected in the market by allowing students to understand who is a good professor and who is a bad one. It also impacts reputation of the schools and they will be much more willing to be more careful about who they allow to become tenured.

True_Liberal April 23, 2007 at 9:53 am

My job, too, was outsourced. Twice, in fact.

But while employed in those soon-to-be-extinct positions, I visited enough of the global village to see the regions that prospered and grew, and the ones once-prosperous and floundering, and the ones remaining mired in poverty.

I could also plainly see the correlation with freedom of choice and prosperity.

And I'll submit there is no correlation between academic tenure and belief in free trade.

Isaac Crawford April 23, 2007 at 9:59 am

I can see the argument that a person having tenure supporting free trade might be acting hypocritically, but that has nothing to do with the merits of free trade itself. I really really hate the current president, but I do not discount everything he says just because he says it. I discount most of the things he says on their own merits. You should never confuse the message with the messenger. People that you don't like or disagree with could still have good points. If I stopped listening to people I thought were hypocrites, I wouldn't listen to anyone… including myself on occasion!

dave smith April 23, 2007 at 11:41 am

Tenure does not mean absolute job security. If the world does not need economics to be taught at my university, all the tenured professors of econ can be let go with the elimination of the department.

This is just exactly like the layoffs that occured with the world didn't need textiles or TVs made in the US anymore. All those workers were let go.

Also, there is a compensating wage differential that accompanies the security of tenure.

save_the_rustbelt April 23, 2007 at 2:31 pm

Tsk, tsk, I think you are calling me a protectionist, which I am not.

I have consistently called for more help for those steamrollered by globalization, you know, those who are losing their jobs, pensions, homes and healthcare.

Don, from his tenured chair, wants a dog-eat-dog world, at least for the blue collar dogs.

Did you catch Sec. Paulson on Charlie Rose last week? He can't seem to understand why people who lose their jobs would tend to vote for protectionist politicians, although he is now mouthing the right buzz words about getting tough with the Chinese, reformulating the TAA, more education and all that, none of which seemed terribly sincere.

We all lose if the government is filled with Sherrod Brown type politicians, but the "little people" can only take a beating for so long.

(Yes, but they get to shop at Wal-Mart!)

The pie is getting bigger, but fewer people have forks. The forkless, despite lacking PhDs, do get to vote. Look for 2008 to be a major loss for the free traders. 'Tis a pity.

The Operator April 23, 2007 at 4:24 pm

Save the rustbelt, wealth is not a zero-sum game (meaning that one person wins while another loses). By endorsing free trade, the government allows for American products to compete directly with the products of other nations; whichever product is made with the highest quality and at the cheapest price wins. Consumers are the real winners in a free market because the said conditions enable them to buy items of quality at cheaper prices. Take Wal-mart for example: American Enterprise Economists estimate that Wal-mart lowers the average cost of living by about $2300 annually by offering cheap goods to its customers. So while protectionists may lose their jobs because they are unable to compete, the prices of consumer items decreases. These individuals must adapt to the newer standards or fall behind and be forced into a new career: just like the horse-drawn buggy industry after the introduction of the automobile.

fred April 23, 2007 at 4:41 pm

If free trade is understood as the freedom of the individual to buy and sell what they choose then all trade is free unless someone other then the individual forces that person to do their bidding. In reality forcing someone to do something other than what they wish is rare. With this in mind please explain what non-free trade is I need to be enlightened.

TGGP April 23, 2007 at 4:57 pm

Don, do you advocate getting rid of tenure?

David P. Graf April 23, 2007 at 8:59 pm

I guess that I'm still looking for an answer to my question as to how one can support "economic freedom" while embracing tenure. Is it incumbent upon free traders to reject tenure for themselves?

ben April 23, 2007 at 10:45 pm

David Graf

You might get an answer if you would explain what the relevance is.

For what it is worth, universities are generally liberal so if anything tenure is more associated with protectionism.

If you're still not convinced, you can hear precisely the same arguments from people not on tenure.

David P. Graf April 24, 2007 at 9:09 am


The reason I asked the question was not to embarass Don, but because I've honestly wondered for a long time how free trade academics square tenure with the policies they espouse on economics. From my perspective, I think there'd be a fair amount of congnitive dissonance. However, that may say more about myself than anyone else.

David Youngberg April 24, 2007 at 10:04 am

While I can't speak for Don, as an academic who would like a job someday I can say it depends on what part of us you ask.

The economist part of me says no. Tenure is a horrible incentive structure and should be removed as it decreases the quality of the education system.

The bill-paying part of me says yes. Tenure is good because I want job security. I have a life to live. (Of course as someone who doesn't yet have a professorship, getting one would be easier if tenure didn't exist, but ignore that for now.)

This duality is the critical point because when people don't have a big-picture way to see the world, they can see things only through their bill-paying persona.

Note that free traders have economic arguments for free trade (a richer society). But we tend to see only personal arguments for protection (save my job, protect my retirement). If you want a clue as to which persona people are using, that distinction is a good start.

Don Boudreaux April 24, 2007 at 1:09 pm

For the record, I do favor getting rid of the tenure system.

Lisa Casanova April 24, 2007 at 4:12 pm

Based on other discussions I've been in, I apparently can't espouse any position that would result in people losing their jobs because I have a fair amount of education and therefore can move easily around the labor market (presumably). This education, of course, fell into my lap like a gift from the Almighty. So who exactly is left who gets to speak on issues of free trade and economic freedom?

Luis Zemborain April 24, 2007 at 4:19 pm

Mr Boudreaux,
You didn´t answer the question: Should someone advancing free trade support or not tenure? Do you support tenure? If you do, how this reconciles with you defending the advancement of economic freedom? If you don´t, why don´t you write more often against it?
Congratulations for the blog.
Luis Zemborain
Buenos Aires

True_Liberal April 24, 2007 at 5:03 pm

As I said previously, I see no correlation between support for free trade vs. tenure. For every tenured prof pro-free-trade, you'll have no trouble find tenured profs with the opposite view. Why should this be an issue?

David P. Graf April 24, 2007 at 10:25 pm


Thanks! I'm sure that we could probably trade war stories about some of things that happen when the wrong people get tenure.

ben April 25, 2007 at 6:44 pm

At least as interesting as a correlation between tenure and views on free trade is the correlation between teaching economics and propensity to wear brown pants. I suspect a causal relationship, but I have been oddly unable to obtain funding for this research. Something about it being TOTALLY IRRELEVANT. :-)

lowcountryjoe April 25, 2007 at 8:31 pm

"The pie is getting bigger, but fewer people have forks."

That because we're bitching about having a fork while we overlook the silver spoon crammed in our mouths. It is amazing the number of people that complain on the Internet on how unfairly, non equitable the economic outcomes in life are. Where was the outlet of their frustrations just 10 years ago?

We have a better pie now and it is okay to dig in without utensil. But, heck, if you have an ounce of ambition and don't like eating with your hands, you can design a new utensil and have at that pie, while at the same time making the pie larger for others. You can even sell them one of your utensils, too. Of course then you'd have a fork manufacturer (and part-time blog reader/poster) establish a new username, calling himself "Save The Pie Fork".

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