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Protectionism’s Essence

Here’s a letter to a college student in New Jersey:

Dear Mr. Sloan:

Thanks for writing.

You ask if my support of free trade is “too simplistic.”  Aren’t there “conditional situations and details” that I overlook when I oppose protectionist arguments?  Fair questions.  My answer, though, is that while I agree that reality is unavoidably more complex than are any human accounts of it, the unconditional case against protectionism is as sound as is, say, the unconditional case against armed robbery.

Suppose your next-door neighbor grows tomatoes and offers to sell some to you.  You reject his offer and instead buy tomatoes from a seller who lives further down the street.  Your next-door neighbor’s prices might be higher than are those charged by the more-distant seller or the quality of his tomatoes not quite to your liking.  Whatever the reasons, you don’t buy tomatoes from your neighbor.

Now suppose that your neighbor responds by pointing a gun at your head to demand that you hand over to him a dollar for every pound of tomatoes that you buy from the seller down the street.  Would you think that your neighbor’s actions are justified?  Of course not.

But what if your neighbor tells you, as he stares at you down the barrel of his gun, that he really needs the extra income that he’ll get if you buy his tomatoes?  Or what if your neighbor insists that the seller down the street is selling tomatoes at prices that are unfairly low?  (“His uncle subsidizes his tomato growing!”)  Or suppose your neighbor asserts that he’s a more reliable supplier of tomatoes for the neighborhood than is the seller down the street?  Would any of these “situations and details” justify your neighbor threatening violence against you if you don’t pay to him a fee whenever you buy tomatoes from someone else?  Of course not – and this conclusion wouldn’t change if your neighbor outsourced to a criminal gang the task of collecting from you the fees your neighbor demands for your patronizing another seller.

Protectionism of the sort practiced by sovereign governments is similarly unconditionally unjustified, for it differs in no relevant ways from the armed robbery described above.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030


I could have added to the letter many other conditions, each equally unsuccessful in justifying the next-door neighbor’s threats of violence.  For example, if a majority of the adults in the immediate vicinity of your house vote to permit your next-door neighbor to threaten violence against you for your not buying his tomatoes, such use of force remains utterly unjustified.