Revisiting Protectionism's 'Logic'

by Don Boudreaux on August 10, 2006

in Trade

Let’s revisit some of the ‘logic’ of protectionism.  Many people today are torn by the age-old worry that trade with foreigners will reduce domestic employment or wages or both.  The logic of this fear, such as it is, isn’t.  Indeed, the illogical, baseless, and factually mistaken beliefs that sustain fears of free trade are too numerous to review even in any decent-size book, much less in a single blog-post.

So let’s keep this entry short by asking a simple question of all protectionists: if a machine were discovered that, with only water combined with dried leaves or dirt or animal manure, could at the mere flip of a switch produce almost unlimited quantities of high-quality automobiles, household furniture, life-saving pharmaceuticals, personal computers, cell phones, clothing, and chia pets, would humankind suffer from this discovery?  Would people generally be made worse off by putting this machine to work?

Yes, yes — autoworkers, furniture makers, pharmaceutical researchers, Michael Dell, and lots of other people would find that the jobs they worked in prior to the discovery of this machine suddenly stop paying enough to make it worth these folks’ while to keep working at these jobs.  This machine would indeed "destroy" lots of jobs, many of them high-paying, and almost all of them occupied by good persons who ‘played by the rules.’

Would anyone — I’d like to ask, for example, Paul Craig Roberts — suppose that such a machine would be bad for the economy, for people, for workers, overall?  Would anyone beyond the second grade — again, I’d like to ask Paul Craig Roberts — seriously advocate keeping this machine under wraps, perhaps even that it be destroyed?

If not — that is, if it is generally agreed that the discovery and use of such a machine would be a boon to humankind — on what basis do protectionists rest their argument that freer trade will lead to a permanent decline in the living standards of those persons who are allowed to trade more freely?  How is being able to satisfy a want at lower cost (which means, ultimately, with fewer resources) harmful?  Asked the other way, how is it possible to make people generally better off by forcing them to forgo opportunities to satisfy their wants at lower cost — to force them to spend resources unnecessarily satisfying want X?

Hostility to free trade reveals either ill-will toward fellow human beings (including fellow citizens) or profoundly confused thought.  Or both.


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