A Neighborhood Tale

by Don Boudreaux on March 6, 2016

in Crony Capitalism, Seen and Unseen, Trade

The following is inspired by a true story.

Alexander List (letting himself, unannounced, into the home of his next-door neighbor Adam Cobden): Hi there, Adam.

Adam Cobden (looking up agitatedly at his neighbor): What do you want?  And why are you pointing that gun at me?

List: I’m here on business – official business, actually.  I want you to stop buying tomatoes from that guy who lives three blocks down from us.  If you continue to buy his tomatoes, I demand that you pay to me a fine – um, I mean, a ‘tariff’ – of 266 percent of the price that you pay for his tomatoes.  But I hope you’ll be reasonable and start buying your tomatoes from those of us who live on the same block as you live.

Cobden (now incredulous): Who the hell are you to tell me who I can and can’t buy my tomatoes from?  How dare you?!  Get out of my house and leave me alone.

List (pulling back the hammer on his gun, still pointed at Cobden): I’m not kidding, Adam.  I’m ordering you either to buy all of your tomatoes only from those of us who live on the same block as you live, or to pay to me 266 percent of whatever price you pay for the tomatoes that you buy elsewhere.  See, I’m a reasonable man.  I leave you free to choose between my two options.  But if you resist both of these options, I’ll kill you.

Cobden: You have no right to….

List (interrupting): I have every right.  As I told you, I consulted with the other people in our block at that meeting we had last week – the meeting that you were invited to but didn’t attend.  Most of us grow tomatoes and would like to have your business.  We’ll charge you fair prices – although, of course, not prices that are as low as you pay to that swindler three blocks down.  His prices are unfairly low; they can’t possibly cover all of his costs.  We voted 16-3 to penalize you for buying tomatoes from outside of our block at prices that we’ve decided are unfairly low.

Cobden: I don’t care if you voted 19-0 and had your vote blessed by the pope himself – you have no right to tell me who I can and can’t buy my tomatoes from or at what prices I must pay for ’em.  So I’m telling you….

List (again interrupting, and thrusting his gun forward for emphasis): Shut up.  You’re wrong.  Not only am I the one with the votes on my side, I’m the one holding the gun to your head.  And, believe me, I’ll use it.  Not that I want to use it.  You, as a good citizen of this neighborhood block, should want – on your own – to buy tomatoes only from us.  Keep the business here at home, local!.  It’s best for us all.  Your buying from the guy three blocks down sends money out of our neighborhood.  That means less demand for the tomatoes grown by us, your friends and closest neighbors.  In fact … in fact (List is now rummaging through his pockets; he soon produces a piece of paper).  In fact, look at this paper.  (List hands the paper to Cobden.)

Cobden (as he reads the paper): It says that if I start buying all of my tomatoes from only tomato growers in our block that the the GBP – the “Gross Block Product” – will rise by five percent, average incomes on the block will rise similarly, and more people on our block will find it profitable to spend time growing tomatoes.

List: Yep!

Cobden: So what?

List (appearing to be surprised at Cobden’s question): So what??  So what????!  So we’ll all, at least on average, be richer, that’s what!  And there will be less idle time for people on our block.  That paper you hold in your hand there, buddy boy, that paper reports the results of a scientific inquiry!  A genuine scientific inquiry!  I hired the Morici kids from across the street to conduct the study.  As you know, they’re really smart kids – they’re in college and have the latest computer gadgetry.  They prove that you, when you buy tomatoes from the guy three blocks down, make us on this block poorer and harm our tomato-growing prospects.  So I point my gun at you only to ensure that you act as objective science demands that you act – only to ensure that you don’t selfishly violate the social contract for your own greedy goals at the expense of the greater good.

Cobden (furious with rage): Listen closely List.  How I conduct my own affairs is none of your damn business.  And it’s none of our neighbors’ business.  You have no right to my business as a consumer.  And I have every right to spend my money how and wherever I choose as long as I do so peacefully.  I will continue to buy tomatoes from whomever I choose and I will refuse to pay to you your so called “tariff” as a penalty for my doing so.  Not only do you not understand economics, you moron you: my buying tomatoes from whomever I choose doesn’t make people on our block poorer; quite the contrary.  Worse, you don’t understand the rules of civilization and of simple human decency.  You are a brute, a thug, an officious a^&^ole.  Now, get out of my h…..

List then shot Cobden dead.

Later that evening List reported to the neighborhood block association that economic prosperity as well as the rule of law had been secured against renegades such as Cobden.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

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