Part of the Provenance of Protectionism

by Don Boudreaux on August 13, 2016

in Adam Smith, Economics, History, Myths and Fallacies, Trade

Quoting from pages 111-112 of the 1990 Transaction Publishers reprint of W.H. Hutt‘s 1936 volume, Economists and the Public; (note: by “power-thought” Hutt – adopting language proposed in Robert Briffault’s 1919 volume, The Making of Humanity – means thought the aim and effect of which is to protect the privileges and purses of the powerful):

The apologists, academic and otherwise, for the doctrine of Protection have derived their convictions, more or less unconsciously, from the power-thought of those whose privileges or advantages were in danger; and the conspicuousness of Protectionist publicists has in itself been a result of power-thought; they have been selected and quoted by the politicians or producing interests whose contentions they have supported.  There are countless false but superficially convincing notions and arguments which can be brought into the field to aid the defence of private profit as enhanced by tariffs: the necessity for ‘creating employment’, the necessity for protecting the home standard of living, the necessity for maintaining the balance of trade, the economic and political advantage of ‘national self-sufficiency’, and so forth.  We are not concerned here to consider the validity of the doctrine of national economic protection.  But the economist can make a list of arguments of this kind that are gravely used by intelligent and eminent politicians, arguments which regularly appear in the columns of leading newspapers, journals and reviews; and he will find them all so easily capable of refutation by elementary logic that the nature of power-thought is thrown into clear light.  It becomes obvious that these ideas are either insincere, deliberately propagated with the idea of gulling an ignorant electorate, or else (and we believe that this is the more important explanation), that the presence of vested interests makes it possible for the feeblest reasoning to be grasped at as effective confirmation for the conviction of most people that what leads to their profit cannot possibly hurt the community.  More subtle reasoning seldom has much effect.  There exists, for example, some rather ingenious arguments for tariffs which have been put forward from time to time; but they have exercised, as arguments, practically no influence on opinion.  The danger in some of these subtle improbabilities that may appear to justify Protection lies, not in their own content, but in the fact that the authority of the propounder (if his status sounds well), will be seized upon, and the community told that So-and-so, ‘an eminent economist’, believes that a tariff is necessary.  It is, however, simple and plausible fallacies which fill the columns of newspapers; they have good propaganda value; and the politicians repeat them to one another in Parliament.  Arguments have been selected for the control they can exercise upon the minds of men and hence upon State policy.

Arguments for protection today – be these trumpeted by Trump, shouted by Sanders, cackled by Clinton, or read in any eminent newspaper or on prominent blogs – are no different or stronger or more refined than were arguments for protection 80 years ago, which themselves were no different or stronger or more refined than were arguments for protection 80 or 160 years before that.  Economists have shown again and again the illogic, the faulty premises, and the biased use of facts that are always to be found in popular arguments for protection.  Yet these arguments never die.  They are idea-zombies, largely because a failure to grasp fundamental economics makes mercantilism seem correct – in the same way that a primitive human being, never exposed to even the most rudimentary scientific thought and judging exclusively from his own personal experience – concludes that the earth is stationary and at the center of moving orbs and twinkly little lights.  This popular ignorance is greedily exploited by powerful producer groups to secure state privileges for themselves at at the expense of the economically uninformed masses.

There is nothing remotely progressive about protectionism.  It is regressive politically, ethically, and economically.  Buffoonish ignoramuses such as Donald Trump and knavish power-mongers such as Hillary Clinton surely don’t care about this reality, but, for heaven’s sake, people who aspire to be intelligent, rational, cosmopolitan, and unbiased ought not fall for the mix of idiocy and grasping-greed that is protectionism.


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