'Personal Security' Reasons for Not Trading?

by Don Boudreaux on August 23, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Risk and Safety, Trade

Howard Harrison (in one of his comments here) worries about the national-security implications of free trade.

I don’t worry about such implications.  One reason I don’t worry is that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that freer trade is associated with greater prosperity — and with greater prosperity people are better able to defend themselves from aggressors.

Another reason I don’t worry is that the evidence also shows that freer trade is associated with a lower likelihood of war with trading partners.

But another reason I don’t worry is that I realize that, whenever I — Don Boudreaux — trade with others I expose myself to specific risks that I would otherwise avoid.  That is, if I let myself dwell on the matter, I might conclude that trade outside of my household poses "personal security" — or "household security" — risks that, in my ignorance of what I might expose myself to as I trade with strangers across town and across the USA, I’d best avoid.

It is, after all, possible that the can of soup I buy at the supermarket will be tainted with poison; it’s possible that going to the Saturday-morning farmers’ market near my home will result in my being gunned down by a madman or by a thief who fancies my wallet or my wife.  Perhaps a trip to the multiplex will end with my dying at the hands of an arsonist who, for whatever sick or selfish reason, torches the theater.  How can I be sure that an ordinary trip to the local pharmacy won’t turn into my death sentence: a fired employee could well ‘go postal.’  And local restaurants?  Fugetaboudem!  Each one is full of strangers who could, at any moment, pull out a knife or a gun or a can of gasoline and start killing everyone in the establishment.

These consequences are indeed possible.  In fact, they actually happen from time to time.  And yet, very few of us conclude from the fact that such a tragedy could befall us that such a tragedy will befall us with sufficient likelihood to justify our closing ourselves off to the world outside of our immediate families.  We’d be much poorer — and, although safer from being killed by strangers, at much higher risk of dying from the likes of disease, malnutrition, and household injuries.

I’m quite confident that, compared to hunkering down at home 24/7 and being self-sufficient, the higher risks of my or my wife or my son being murdered when we choose to take an ordinary trip to the shopping mall, the supermarket, or a local restaurant exceed  the increased risks of our being killed as result of Uncle Sam permitting Americans to trade freely with people in other countries.  I have no hard evidence to support this hypothesis – but no one has any evidence to contradict it.

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Martin Brock August 23, 2008 at 9:36 am

Who says my immediate family isn't out to get me too?

Per Kurowski August 23, 2008 at 9:46 am

The worst part of any wall is that you will never be really sure you ended up on the right side of it!

hanmeng August 23, 2008 at 9:49 am

The real danger from restaurants is employees who don't wash their hands…or place bodily fluids in your food.

Per Kurowski August 23, 2008 at 9:53 am

Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1995, "Crime in the United States, 1994," U.S. Department of Justice http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/ncvrw/1996/k-homicd.htm
“Forty-seven percent of murder victims were related to (12 percent) or acquainted with (35 percent) their assailants. Among all female murder victims in 1994, 28 percent were slain by husbands or boyfriends.”

libfree August 23, 2008 at 10:49 am

If I get "gunned down while buying something organic", I want that inscription on my tombstone.

shawn August 23, 2008 at 11:12 am

…if anyone *sees* me buying something organic, you're pretty much allowed to gun me down. You've got to promise to take my wallet and give all money to someone who promises to actually use it wisely.

Hans Luftner August 23, 2008 at 1:43 pm

I'm sure either I or someone in my household could do the electrical work in my house, but for safety reasons I'm calling an electrician.

Honestly, I'm not very good at growing food, either. Self-reliance would starve me to death.

shecky August 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm

Good trading partners would seem much more motivated to avoid antagonizing each other.

There seems to be a great deal of suspicion about foreign products. Enough to plant conspiracy theories, wherein tainted pet food and dodgy toy construction becomes coordinated efforts to subvert Mom and apple pie. The crazy thing is that this kind of paranoia is most rampant among folks who really should know better, and normally would, were it not for a vary basic lack of faith in capitalist society.

Sam Grove August 23, 2008 at 2:15 pm

Those who go around poking hornet nests are not our friends.

Crusader August 23, 2008 at 5:43 pm

Liberals never studied up probabilities in school. There's a reason why we know they're dumb.

Crusader August 23, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Those who go around poking hornet nests are not our friends.

Posted by: Sam Grove | Aug 23, 2008 2:15:24 PM

Like Condi with her Poland missile deal?

Sam Grove August 23, 2008 at 8:40 pm

Like Condi with her Poland missile deal?

Like U.S. foreign policy in the ME since WWII, the state dept. and the CIA.

LowcountryJoe August 24, 2008 at 7:28 am

Curious thing about the lead based toys and tainted dog food stories: those news items should have had longer legs in this xenophobic world. But, those news items went away very quickly almost too quickly. Why was that? Were the lead levels found to be no higher than toys sourced from locations other than China? Did the tainted dry dog food turn out to not be the dog-killer that it was reported to be?

I also don't hear much about SARS, Bird Flu, or Monkey Pox any longer but I am sure that strains of the stuff are still out there.

Dallas Weaver, Ph.D. August 24, 2008 at 11:04 am

Both the Chinese and the US military need a technologically viable enemy to justify budget increases. They are constantly pushing the threat to shake the money tree. Meanwhile, WalMart and the other have increased trade to the point where more jobs are at stake in both countries than the number of military jobs. As a result, not enough people believe the DOD or the Peoples Army hysteria.

Bottom line: WalMart is doing more for world peace than any other company. That statement is often a conversation stopper with most liberals.

Howard J. Harrison September 9, 2008 at 5:08 pm

Dr. Boudreaux:

Thank you for the courteous reply, which I have first read today.


lawyer austin September 24, 2009 at 3:02 pm


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