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Some Questions for Protectionists

Protectionism is a disease that feeds on fear and ignorance.

With an unusual amount of economic uncertainty sparking an unusual amount of economic fear, protectionist sentiments today are growing. Blatant protectionist pundits such as Lou Dobbs, and blatant protectionist politicians such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D N.D.), enjoy larger platforms than they had even just a few years ago.

Protectionism’s allure is understandable. “If we make it harder for Americans to buy foreign-made goods,” alleges the protectionist, “we increase the demand for American-made goods. With more goods being made in America, more Americans will find jobs. QED.” In this case, though, “QED” should be read as standing for “Quite Especially Dumb.”

That’s the opening to my latest piece in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, in which I then goes on to pose some “Bastiatian” questions to protectionists, such as,

1. You, Mr. Protectionist, say that low-priced imports harm us. Can you explain why access to low-cost goods and services makes us poorer?

2. You answer question No. 1 by saying that allowing American consumers to buy low-priced goods and services from abroad causes American producers — who can produce those things only at uncompetitively higher costs — to lose their markets. When these high-cost American producers lose their markets, high-wage American workers lose their jobs. You insist that it’s this displacement of high-cost producers in the U.S. by low-cost producers abroad that must be stopped.

So do you, Mr. Protectionist, also believe that Uncle Sam should force us Americans to pay a high tariff on sunlight before we are allowed to use it? After all, sunlight is an enormously beneficial product that Americans routinely import at no cost at all! (The sun charges us nothing for the valuable heat and light that it exports to us daily.) Don’t you worry that this dirt-cheap import that floods our market every day unfairly shrinks the market for
American-made goods such as light bulbs, flashlights, central-heating units and down blankets?

If you don’t support blocking sunlight with a tariff or with some other government restriction — why not? Please explain how one low-cost yet valuable import (sunlight) differs from other low-cost yet valuable imports (such as steel from China or textiles from Malaysia).