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Costs are Not Benefits

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Two cheers for Senators Max Baucus and John Kerry for supporting freer trade with Colombia (“The Colombia Trade Deal: A Different Kind of Jobs Bill,” April 4).  A third cheer would be in order had not the senators relied upon a wholly mistaken reason to justify this particular move toward freer trade.

In their essay, U.S. imports and American consumers are mentioned a total of zero times, while U.S. exports and American producers (such as farmers, firms, and workers) are mentioned 23 times.

While pandering to economic ignorance often wins votes, it’s distressing to see such pandering – even for a good cause – in your pages.  Trade’s benefits are measured in imports; the more the better.  Exports are the costs of getting these benefits.  In a truly ideal world – one quite the opposite of the ostensible ideal of Messrs. Baucus and Kerry – we’d continually receive cargo ship after cargo ship of automobiles, MP3 players, foodstuffs, and countless other valuable imports in exchange for our export of a single toothpick.  Alas, it’s unfortunate that foreigners in fact are so prehensile that they demand lots more than one toothpick in exchange for the stuff they ship to us.

The senators’ argument for freer trade in this particular case undermines the larger effort to persuade the public that free trade is to everyone’s long-term advantage – an advantage that is measured by increases in what we’re able to consume and not by increases in what we must sacrifice.

Donald J. Boudreaux