The habit of looking on the giving of employment as a benefaction and on work as a boon, lends easy currency to teachings which assume that work is desirable in itself – something which each nation ought to try to get the most of – and makes a system which professes to prevent other countries from doing for us work we might do for ourselves seem like a system for the enrichment of our own country and the benefit of its working classes. It not only indisposes men to grasp the truth that protection can operate only to reduce the productiveness of labor; but it indisposes them to care anything about that. It is the need for labor, not the productiveness of labor, that they are accustomed to look upon as the thing to be desired.
And so matters remain today, 130 years after George penned the above words. Most people mistakenly regard jobs and exports as benefits, and regard imports and labor-saving processes as costs. Of course, at the end of the day what a person regards as benefits, and what that person regards as costs, is a matter of that person’s subjective value judgment. But what is a matter of objective economic science and not value judgment is the conclusion that policies that aimed at promoting exports and discouraging imports make the domestic labor force, on the whole, less productive than it would be otherwise and, therefore, make people materially poorer than they would be under a policy of free trade.