“I Can Imagine” Is Not a Valid Argument

by Don Boudreaux on August 2, 2016

in Myths and Fallacies, Risk and Safety, Trade

Commenting on this Cafe Hayek post, Ronald Warrick writes (I quote him in full):

Suppose it could be shown that while Americans as a whole are enriched by Chinese devaluation, some identifiable Americans actually die as a result. Would you still see no problem with it? My point is, how much harm are you willing to accept with complacence?

Die?  Death by currency devaluation?  Almost anything is possible, although almost everything that is possible is implausible, most of what is plausible is improbable, and only some of what is probable actually occurs.

One valid response to Mr. Warrick’s question is to point out that whatever are the chances that currency devaluation is lethal to some people, those chances are no greater than are the chances that any other sources of economic change are lethal.  I demonstrate by rewording Mr. Warrick’s question only slightly:

Suppose it could be shown that while Americans as a whole are enriched by technological innovation, some identifiable Americans actually die as a result. Would you still see no problem with it? My point is, how much harm are you willing to accept with complacence?

Or try this alternative slight rewording:

Suppose it could be shown that while Americans as a whole are enriched by improved infrastructure that makes new domestic trading patterns attractive, some identifiable Americans actually die as a result. Would you still see no problem with it? My point is, how much harm are you willing to accept with complacence?

One’s ability to postulate, or even to describe in detail, hypothetical scenarios in which bad things happen when the domestic government follows a policy of free trade is insufficient reason to tar that policy as “complacence.”  Before such skepticism of a policy of free trade is economically and ethically justified, the skeptic must offer a plausible explanation of how free trade can cause economic disruptions or dangerous economic developments that are not as likely to be caused by any other sources of economic change.  Free-trade skeptics over the centuries have tried to offer such explanations, but they’ve consistently failed.  They’ve failed for the same reason that, say, someone would fail who tried warn of the special economic dangers of unobstructed trade with Jews or with blue-eyed people or with people whose last names start with the letter “W”.

Here’s a very different angle on the matter, but one that leads to the same conclusion as above.  I again change the wording of Mr. Warrick’s comment only slightly (and with apologies to Guido Calabresi):

Suppose it could be shown that while Americans as a whole are enriched by the automobile, some identifiable Americans actually die as a result. Would you still see no problem with it? My point is, how much harm are you willing to accept with complacence?

I hesitated to offer this alternative angle out of fear that someone would interpret it as an admission that currency devaluation is in fact lethal in some cases.  Of course, it isn’t at all lethal (at least not more so than any other source of changes in consumer demands).  But I overcame my hesitation in order to make the point that we regularly accept risks of death – and actual deaths – as an appropriate price to pay for economic progress and “mere” convenience and comfort.  But my fear of being misinterpreted prompts me to repeat that I believe the suggestion that currency devaluation is in reality lethal to Americans to be untenable.

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