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The Dignity of Free Trade

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In my latest Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column, I address a frequently heard objection to Adam Smith’s insistence that the ultimate purpose of all economic activity is consumption rather than production [2].  A slice:

Essential to a producer’s self-respect and dignity is the belief that he earns his living honestly. The producer takes justified pride in his work not merely because that work pays him well but because that work is socially useful.

Protectionism, however, destroys this source of pride — or, it would destroy this source of pride if protected producers understood the nature of protectionism. Protectionism allows a handful of producers to earn incomes not by serving consumers but, instead, by being served by consumers. Protectionism is a policy, enforced with threats of violence, that prevents consumers from spending their incomes in ways that promote their own best interests; protectionism is a policy of forcing consumers to spend their incomes in ways that promote the interests of current producers.

Protectionism treats production as the ultimate goal of economic activity — a goal that consumption must be made to serve.

Unlike workers and producers who succeed when trade is free, workers and producers who remain in their current jobs only because of trade barriers do not serve their fellow human beings as well as they possibly can. They do not truly earn their incomes. And there is no dignity in that.

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