The Sado-Masochism of Trade Wars

by Don Boudreaux on March 17, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Trade

imagesHere’s a letter to a frequent correspondent – one who, in an e-mail to me, describes any American’s support for free trade as “incomprehensible”:

Mr. Nolan McKinney

Mr. McKinney:

You’re “certain that America is powerful enough to win a trade war.”

Waging and winning a trade war are peculiar things.

Trade wars are waged as if the population of each belligerent country consists of a handful of sadists ruling over a mass of masochists.  The rulers thrill as they bind and torture the masses, and the masses so enjoy this ordeal that they count their bondage and pain as their gain.  It follows that the winner of a trade war is the country whose sadists clamp the tightest bonds and wreak the greatest pain on its mass of masochists.

While I leave open the question of whether or not national rulers really are sadists, I’m sure that the masses really aren’t masochists.  Yet the masses, including you, nevertheless fall for the sadistic promise that all of your tomorrows will be pain-free and filled with abundance and pleasure only if you agree today to suffer the bondage of trade restraints and the torture of higher consumer-goods prices.

The cold, hard truth is that the only treasure and spoils captured by victors in trade wars are the bondage and privation of the masses.  A trade war is not a contest that sensible people want their government to wage and (even less) to win.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

UPDATE: It just dawns on me how very peculiar it is for mercantilists such as Trump and my correspondent Mr. McKinney to be so confident “that America is strong enough to win a trade war” but too weak to prosper by trading freely.


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