Economists Are Not Therapists

by Don Boudreaux on May 27, 2017

in Economics

Re-reading Paul Moroni’s original comment (addressed here), this line struck me:

The arrogance of economists like DBx who say ‘you should be fine looking your wife and kids in the face after being layed [sic] off because now iPhones are cheaper’ is the reason no one likes listening to free trade diatribes. They miss the point and talk past peoples actual concerns.

For the first time I see something that I don’t recall seeing in the past – namely, economists who endorse free trade are often criticized, as they are here, for not being emotional or psychological or spiritual therapists.

I have nothing against such therapists.  I have nothing against people who use such therapists.  Such therapists, I’m sure, often do genuine good for those suffering loss, grief, anguish, anger, anxiety, fear, or depression.  But I’m an economist and not a therapist.  My job is to address people’s actual concerns insofar as these concerns are about how the economy actually works and what are the likely consequences of government interventions.  My job is not to sugar coat reality.  My job is not to hide reality from the public.  And it certainly isn’t to distort reality.  (Politicians and media personalities do quite enough of that.)

So I ask myself: what is meant by the charge that free traders “miss the point and talk past people’s actual concerns”?  I honestly can think of nothing that we free traders do not often say but that we should say on this front.  Clearly, we cannot agree with the protectionists who promise to protect particular, visible jobs.  It’s our job to point to the many unseen ill-consequences of such protection (including, again, destroyed jobs elsewhere in the domestic economy).  While I understand that a worker who loses his or her job because of expanded international trade is likely upset and anxious and unappeased by knowing that consumers are better off and that some fellow citizens will, as a result of the government not raising tariffs, not lose their jobs, I do not understand what an economist is supposed to say other than what we already say.

In such situations free-trade economists point out all sorts of upsides of free trade – upsides that even are likely for the currently aggrieved unemployed worker and his or her children.  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about their prospects as consumers?  The case for free trade touches frequently upon this matter, explaining how those prospects are improved by trade.  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about their children’s and grandchildren’s future prosperity?  The case for free trade touches frequently upon this matter, explaining how free trade creates a brighter and more prosperous future for their children and grandchildren.  (See Russ Roberts’s brilliant book, The Choice.)  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about cronyism and government granting privileges to the few at the expense of the many?  The case for free trade touches frequently upon this matter, explaining how a policy of free trade reduces cronyism and special privileges.  Are today’s workers not “concerned” about war?  The case for free trade touches – although not frequently enough – upon this matter, explaining that increased international commerce reduces the likelihood of war.

But of course the worker laid off today is also concerned about how to find another job and to keep his or her family from suffering material deprivation.  I get this fact.  I understand it.  I realize that it’s a wholly justified concern.  My shipyard-pipefitter father – who had a wife and four children and his own father to care for – was laid off several times when I was a child, once for a very long period.  But to this concern – which, again, I’m aware is real and justified – the economist has nothing to say.  The economist is neither a therapist nor a jobs counsellor.  The economist also isn’t a pastor.  And if the economist does in such a situation attempt to mold his economics to make it sure to appeal to the anxious and angry laid-off worker, the only result will be very bad economics spilling out of the mouth of, or off of the keyboard of, that economist.


The economist serves society best by busting myths.  Economic myths are distressingly plentiful, in part because they almost always serve the interests of politically powerful special interest groups.  If and to the extent that economists perform this job well, the best that can be hoped for is that public policy will improve over time (or, at least, the decline in the quality of public policy will be slowed).  If the general public comes even a bit more to reject a widespread myth – say, the one that holds that imports only destroy domestic jobs without fueling the creation of other domestic jobs – then trade policy might improve, if only a bit, as a result.  But any such improvement will come as a result of policy being influenced by, and made by, people who aren’t in the midst of a crisis.  Workers losing their jobs today to imports are almost certainly going to press for government protection of their jobs if government is seen as appropriately standing ready to offer such protection.  Nothing an economist – if he or she sticks to being a good economist – can say will causes these workers to change their attitudes and demands. Nothing the economist can say in this situation will prevent government from raising tariffs to protect those particular jobs.  The good economist can hope only to influence ideas that hold sway over the long-run.  Ideally, on matters of trade, the economist can hope to create a future in which people’s ideology simply will not tolerate government doling out the special privilege called “trade protection.”

Finally – and to be clear – I have never said anything remotely akin to what Mr. Moroni accuses me of saying, namely, “you should be fine looking your wife and kids in the face after being laid off because now iPhones are cheaper.”  And not only have I never said such a stupid thing, I have never even thought it.  Moreover, I know of no serious economist who writes or speaks in support of free trade who has said such an idiotic thing.  And so to suppose that such a thing is what we free traders believe is to reveal a deep misunderstanding of the case for free trade.


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