Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 13, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Trade

… is from page 249 of Liberty Fund’s newly published, expanded English-language edition, brilliantly edited by David Hart, of Frédéric Bastiat’s indispensable work Economic Sophisms and “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen”; specifically, it’s from Bastiat’s February 1847 essay “Domination through Work” (“Domination par le travail”):

If a product is seen only as the opportunity for work, it is certain that the anxieties of protectionists are well founded.  If we considered iron, for example, merely with regard to its relationship with iron masters, we might fear that competition from a country in which it was a free gift of nature might extinguish the furnaces in another country in which both mineral and fuel were scarce.

However, is this a comprehensive view of the subject?  Has iron a relationship only with those who make it?  Is it foreign to those that use it?  Is its sole and final purpose that of being produced?  And if it is useful, not because of the work to which it gives rise but because of the qualities it possesses and the number of services for which its hardness and malleability make it suitable, does it not follow that foreigners cannot reduce its price even to the point of preventing its production here without doing us more good in this latter respect than any harm it might do in the former?

DBx: Pardon my repetitiveness, but it’s important to reveal the flawed reasoning that gives rise to a common misunderstanding that lies at the root of much protectionist sentiment.  The common misunderstanding that I here have in mind is that protectionism is justified if enough consumers or voters are willing to pay higher prices in order to help workers.  There are at least three flaws in this reasoning.

First, those who justify protectionism on this ground typically suppose that foreign trade uniquely destroys particular jobs in the domestic economy.  But of course in modern economies many particular jobs are destroyed (and created) daily for reasons having nothing to do with imports.  If punitive taxes on consumer expenditures are justified because they prevent particular job losses, then consistency requires that anytime any consumer changes his or her spending pattern that that consumer’s new expenditures be taxed punitively.  The local handyman who loses his job because improvements in home construction reduce the need for his services suffers no less than does the local steelworker who loses her job because fellow citizens are buying more steel from abroad.  Unless and until protectionists proclaim that they want to prevent all economic change, there’s no good reason to pay attention to their calls for restrictions only on imports.

Second, those who justify protectionism on this ground ignore the jobs in the domestic economy that are currently made possible by imports, as well as jobs in the domestic economy that would in the future be made possible by imports in the absence of protectionism.  The debate over free trade is not a debate between those who, on one side, champion consumers over producers, and those who, on the other side, champion producers over consumers.  While it must never be forgotten that the ultimate justification for all economic activity lies in its ability to satisfy consumer demands, it must also never be forgotten that to protect some particular jobs with tariffs and other import restraints (or with export subsidies) is to destroy other particular jobs – other particular jobs currently existing and also, absent protectionist policies, to exist in the future.

Third, those who justify protectionism on this ground ignore the foreign jobs that are destroyed by the protectionists’ own governments’ protectionist policies.  Even if we stipulate for the sake of argument that trade policy is to be judged exclusively by its effects on workers in the particular jobs that they currently hold, a professed willingness to pay higher prices in order to magnanimously prevent some workers from suffering particular job losses rings hollow as a proclamation of one’s alleged superior morality if the person who so professes that willingness ignores the job losses inflicted on foreign workers by that person’s own-government’s protectionist policies.

Anyone who accuses free traders of having a morality that’s too narrow and cramped is usually a hypocrite, although often unawares.  It is the typical protectionist whose morality is far more narrow and cramped, for that person (1) ignores or discounts the interests of both domestic and foreign consumers, (2) ignores the interests of all workers, domestic and foreign, save for the relatively small handful who stand to be protected today from having to compete with imports, and (3) ignores the benefits of freedom as an end in itself.


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