Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 2, 2011

in Seen and Unseen, Trade, War

… is from an 1876 lecture in New York City, delivered to the International Free-Trade Alliance, by William Graham Sumner; the lecture is entitled “The Establishment of Protection in this Country.”  With this quotation Sumner argues against those who advocate protectionism as a means of strengthening a nation’s ability to militarily defend itself against foreign aggressors:

In fact, however, the independence which we seek must be sought another direction.  Independent men are those who have wealth, not those whose houses are stored for a siege.  Independent nations are those which are wealthy, because they can command what they want when want it.  Those will be wealthiest which give industry its freest course in time of peace.

Sumner’s point reminds me of an argument made by my teacher Leland Yeager in this 1954 monograph:

The moral is that the United States should not partially freeze its industry by Protectionist policies into a pattern that might well prove, if war finally came, to be out of date—and all at the cost of a sure loss in real national income. Even from considerations of national defense, it would probably be wiser to adopt Free Trade and other policies contributing to general economic strength and to rely, if war cut off foreign supplies, on the conversion of peacetime industry to wartime purposes that would in any case be necessary.

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kyle8 August 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm

It really is the same argument against high tax rates or high regulations. Everything that we do which negatively effects economic growth and opportunity will make anything in the future worse because we will be less wealthy.

If any problems arise, war, natural disaster, or a worldwide economic problem, the wealthier you are, the better you are able to overcome the problem, or rebuild.

Greg Webb August 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Free trade and free markets have made the United States the world’s sole superpower and, through its commitment to militarily protecting commerce and trade by keeping the world’s oceans and air space open to trade, it has created great wealth for many of the world’s nations as well. Protectionism protects only a few producers and their employees as well as the political class that advocates on their behalf at the expense of the much more numerous consuming class.

muirgeo August 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Greg, actually we became a super power while under a far more protectionist regime. Likewise for ALL major developed ecnomies. Only now with this uneqaul trade have we been sinking into the mire and looking more and more like a third world nation wannabe… or at best a Banana Republic.

brotio August 2, 2011 at 7:57 pm

We became an economic superpower by bombing the rest of the industrialized world to smithereens. Protectionism is window dressing if the countries you are protecting the unions from have no industrial capability.

Chucklehead August 3, 2011 at 1:36 am

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
Ronald Reagan

DG Lesvic August 3, 2011 at 4:20 am


Another of your brilliant Ya me too commentaries.

Between that and your slanders of better men, I don’t know what we’d do without you.

kyle8 August 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm

W G Sumner is an interesting product of the Victorian age and a bit of a dichotomy. He was an early anti-imperialist, and free marketeer, and has been credited by some as a proto-libertarian. However, he was also the father of Sociology, and he vehemently attacked the idea of natural rights.

Not like Ayn Rand, Her criticisms of natural rights was a bit contradictory with some of the other things she wrote. In his case, Sumner actually believed that rights were merely something that it was expedient to give to men through social contract.

In my mind that is not a very good bedrock, or basis for arguing for human rights. If rights are so arbitrary, then why cannot a Marxist hold up collective rights as equal to individual rights? In my view, rights must be inherent due to our nature as humans, and inviolable, nor can you arbitrarily trade away your basic rights.

Douglass Holmes August 2, 2011 at 5:31 pm

“Why cannot a Marxist hold up collective rights as equal to individual rights?”
Why do you think that the labor movement uses the phrase “right to organize?”

Gil August 3, 2011 at 8:01 am

What rights? Inevitably realisation of supposed rights is your ability to ward those who would remove them.

juan carlos vera August 3, 2011 at 6:50 am

Good lecture…
Reviewing my past readings I found this http://www.fff.org/freedom/0892a.asp is a brilliant piece to think about how this great country, USA, imagined by their ancestors, is being demolished after 70 years of applying the economic principles of nazism, fascism, and socialism. It pains me to see people of a vigorous society have become slaves, fearful of bureaucrats and politicians… If so, you are being humiliated by that bunch of cowards…
I apologize for giving an opinion about your beloved country…

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