Lately I feel as I imagine an astronomer would today feel if, centuries after Copernicus and Galileo proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the earth isn’t the center of the solar system, large numbers of people – including popular media pundits and politicians – began to insist that the sun and the planets and the stars do indeed all revolve around a stationary earth that is situated in the center of the universe.
“How dare you contradict what my senses tell me!” scream hordes of people at the astronomer whose knowledge and reason prevent him even from saying, much less from actually believing, that the earth is a stationary orb in the center of the universe. “The earth feels stationary to me! And I see with my own eyes the sun and the stars move around the still earth no less than the moon moves around the still earth! You, you ‘astronomer’ you,’ you don’t understand the difference between the real world and your ivory-tower theories. But you don’t fool us folks who have common sense – and who have also a lot of experience standing on earth and looking at the sky. We know that your ‘theory’ that the earth isn’t stationary at the center of the universe is bunk and b.s.!”
Over the past several weeks I’ve gotten about 25 e-mails, all from strangers, accusing me – because of my support for free trade – of being as unrealistic and as “head-in-ass” (to quote one charming correspondent) as the hypothetical astronomer above is accused of being. It’s dispiriting. (I note that I’ve received by e-mail also a number of polite and civilized questions about trade, some of which I’ve already answered and others of which I hope to answer soon.)
It’s dispiriting not because such criticisms signal that those who sling such criticisms at me obviously do not actually read (or do not read with sufficient care) the things that I write on trade. I have no expectation that anyone does, or any presumption that anyone should, read my pedestrian prose. But libraries and bookstores and the web are full of countless quality and accessible works that eloquently expose all the many flaws of those who believe that prosperity grows from preventing consumers from spending their money as they choose. It’s dispiriting that my fellow economists and I have performed so poorly the task of explaining to the public the dignity and benefits of free trade and the deviousness and the ravages of protectionism.
To all protectionists – to everyone who is attracted to Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s hostility to free trade – let me again ask questions of you of a sort that have been asked since the time of Adam Smith and which remain as probing today as ever:
– Are you made richer if the supermarket (call it Acme Stores) at which you once shopped hires armed goons to force you to start shopping there again?
– Do you believe that the owners and the employees of Acme Stores are so ethically entitled to your continuing patronage as a consumer that they are justified in employing armed goons to prevent you from shopping elsewhere?
– Do you believe that, now that Acme Stores has successfully forced you not to shop at competing supermarkets, that the owners and employees of Acme Stores will work as diligently and as creatively as possible to keep the prices they charge low and the quality of their service high?
– Do you believe that the higher profits and higher wages reaped by Acme’s owners and workers as a result of their holding you hostage as a customer make you more prosperous?
– Do you believe that the higher profits and higher wages reaped by Acme’s owners and workers as a result of their holding you hostage as a customer make your community more prosperous, even though Acme’s higher profits and higher wages are necessarily funded by money that you and other of Acme’s ‘customers’ are forced not to spend on other goods, services, or investment options?
– If you believe that Acme Stores has a right to force you not to shop for food at other supermarkets, do you believe also that Acme Stores has a right to force you not to grow more of your own food, or not to eat out more often at restaurants, or not to go on a diet?
– If you answered “no” to the previous question, why do you think the resulting lower revenues and job losses at Acme are acceptable if they result from those changes in your spending patterns (say, your choosing to eat more often at restaurants) but not if they result from your choosing to patronize any supermarket that competes with Acme?
– Do you think that Acme’s owners and workers gain an ethical claim on a portion of your income simply because you once chose to shop at Acme? If at the very first time you walked into Acme with the intention to shop there you were told, as you entered, ‘If you shop here and spend $200 you must return at least once a week to this store and spend at least $200 on our groceries,’ would you have still chosen to shop at Acme?
– If you think that America is made poorer by buying goods from Mexico, do you also think that New York is made poorer by buying goods from Mississippi? (The average wage in Mississippi is much lower than it is in New York.)
– If you think that America will be enriched if Washington imposes punitive taxes on Americans who buy goods from Mexico, do you think that New York will be enriched if Albany imposes punitive taxes on New Yorkers who buy goods from Mississippi?
– If you think that free trade among nations is a bad idea, do you also think that free trade among the U.S. states is a bad idea? If not, why not?
– If you think that rich Americans are made poorer by being free to trade with poorer non-Americans, do you also think that rich Americans are made poorer by being free to trade with poorer Americans? If not, why not?