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We Need a Vaccine Against the Virus of Protectionism

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Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

In his otherwise thoughtful essay on “Liberalism’s moral crisis on trade [2]” (Oct. 7), Matt Miller describes what he calls “this awful, inexorable fact” – namely, “Global capitalism’s ability to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China, India and other developing countries comes partly at the expense of tens of millions of workers in wealthy nations.”

It’s true that capitalism ‘destroys’ specific jobs.  (Usually these are jobs that capitalism earlier created.)  But this destruction is unleashed not only by foreign trade, but also – indeed, chiefly – by improvements in technology.  For example, Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper (first introduced in 1831) destroyed the jobs of farm workers who reaped grain manually.  What about this development was “awful”?  Yes, flesh-and-blood reapers lost their jobs – just as typists later lost their jobs to personal computers and laser printers, and persons who produced iron-lung machines lost their jobs to the Salk-Sabin polio vaccine.

But as with the jobs destroyed by Mr. McCormick, by personal computers, and by Drs. Salk and Sabin, jobs destroyed by foreign trade are destroyed, really, by progress and by consumer choice.  If this fact truly is “awful,” then we should be, at best, ambivalent about the McCormick reaper and the Salk-Sabin vaccine.  That all sane human beings celebrate these ‘job-destroying’ technologies as unalloyed blessings suggests that we should celebrate with no less enthusiasm the consequences of free trade.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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