Greg Mankiw on Free Trade

by Don Boudreaux on February 21, 2018

in Trade

Greg Mankiw’s recent New York Times column offers an excellent summary of some recent research on international trade.  And I love his conclusion:

That is the theory and evidence regarding international trade [which shows that trade quite unambiguously yields net benefits to the denizens of the free(r) trading countries]. I don’t expect this academic work to persuade Mr. Trump. But he is said to pay more attention to briefings that contain his own name. So let’s return to Adam Smith’s birthplace and ponder these questions:

Should we impose a tariff on Americans vacationing at Scotland’s Trump International Golf Links? Or should vacationers make their consumption choices free from the heavy hand of government?

Alas, I predict that Mankiw’s argument will persuade no protectionists.

My prediction is no criticism of Mankiw’s argument, for no argument for free(r) trade will persuade protectionists.  Protectionists – with exceptions too rare to mention – are an unpersuadable lot.  They are blind to the full effects of trade.  Just as you cannot make a blind man ‘see’ the color yellow and ‘see’ how the color yellow differs from the colors green and red, you cannot make a protectionist see the jobs created in the domestic economy by trade – you cannot make a protectionist see that the consumer benefits created in the domestic economy by trade overwhelm whatever short-term ‘losses’ trade (that is, economic competition) inflicts – you cannot make a protectionist ‘see’ that a rising domestic trade ‘deficit’ is generally both evidence of a healthy domestic economy and a source of further domestic economic growth – you cannot make a protectionist see that a government that stands ready to dole out protectionist favors will inevitably be corrupt and captured by special-interest groups – you cannot make a protectionist see that trade across political borders is a manifestation of healthy economic competition that differs in absolutely no meaningful ways from any other manifestation of healthy economic competition.

In short, you cannot make a protectionist see.  Protectionists are incurably blind to all but the indistinct outlines of a few large, well-lit figures that dance immediately before their noses.

The goal of free traders ought not be to ‘convert’ protectionists.  Such conversions are impossible – or too improbable to be concerned with.  The goal, instead, is to persuade those who haven’t yet formed settled opinions on the matter – especially young people – that all peaceful trade deserves a strong presumption of legitimacy, and that this presumption is not weakened one iota for trades that happen to traverse political borders.


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