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Open Letter to An E-Mail Correspondent

27 February 2011

Mr. Lance B_________

Dear Mr. B_________:

You urge me “to take more serious the argument [that] free trade hurts Americans when our trade partners don’t protect their workers as strong as us Americans do.”

You go on to explain that foreign governments that fail to enforce the same high standards of environmental protection and workplace safety that Uncle Sam currently enforces provide for their producers “unfair cost advantages.”  Free trade with such countries, you assert, only harms Americans.

I have some questions for you.

Suppose that a brilliant Chinese entrepreneur invents an automobile factory that converts house-fly droppings into all of the energy that the factory requires for its operations.  Suppose further that this entrepreneur devises a process that causes house flies, in their natural search for food, to fly through a series of teeny-weeny turnstiles whose combined movements result in an incredibly productive assembly-line process for daily churning out high-quality, low-priced automobiles for export to America.  This factory requires only three human workers; its chief workers are unpaid house flies whose instincts prompt them to set in motion mechanical processes that produce an incredible quantity of high-quality automobiles each day.

The small complement of human workers are paid and protected handsomely by the factory owner, but the bulk of the factory’s labor is supplied by unpaid house flies, none of whom enjoys the slightest bit of legislatively enforced ‘worker’ protections.

Would Americans be harmed by trading freely with this Chinese factory?  Should Uncle Sam prevent Americans from buying these Chinese-made cars on grounds that most of the workers in this Chinese factory are paid less – and receive far fewer work-place protections – than do American workers?

The point of my questions is not to justify cruel exploitation of foreign workers; it is, rather, to challenge your contention that free trade with foreigners who produce at lower costs – both ‘real’ and government-induced – than their American rivals harms Americans.  It does not.

Donald J. Boudreaux