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More on Tenure and Support for Free Trade

Here’s an e-mail that arrived last night:

Dear Professor Boudreaux,

Your defense of free trade is unobjectionable.

You express it qua professor of economics, which is as it should be.

Yet what would you answer to someone who has lost his job and has the cheek to point out that you, as a university professor, are now safely protected by tenure? Unlike him.

This is admittedly a non-technical objection and could be dismissed as a kind of irrelevant ad hominem (or rather ad professorem) attack. But it deserves consideration all the same. Otherwise you will probably fail to impress those who are not as fortunate as you are and may have great difficulty in finding a new job.

I have no doubt you have read this a hundred times before and have a convincing prepared answer. Let’s see it on your blog.

All the best,

Claude Boisson
Lyon, France

M. Boisson is correct that this ad hominem objection to my objections to protectionism is often raised.  I have addressed this ad hominem objection in earlier posts, such as here and here.  I add here that I became an advocate of free trade at the age of 18, when I took my first economics course and was introduced then to the writings of Frederic Bastiat.  I was then not tenured.  Indeed, I was then still heavily dependent upon my parents, each of whom then worked at a shipyard near New Orleans – my mom as an untenured secretary and my father as an untenured pipe-fitter.

I continued to support free trade throughout my untenured undergraduate training as well as during my untenured years as a graduate student.  Even as an untenured assistant professor at George Mason University (1985-1989), as an untenured law student at the University of Virginia (1989-1992), and as an untenured assistant professor at Clemson University (1992-1994), I supported – vocally and in writing – free trade.  (The personalized Virginia license tag that I have now on my car – FRE TRDE – is the very same tag that I had on my car from 1986 through 1992, years during which I was not tenured.)  When I first got tenure, at the age of 36 in 1994 (at Clemson), my support for free trade did not intensify, for it was already quite intense.

In 1997 I gave up my tenured faculty post at Clemson in order to become President of the Foundation for Economic Education.  Despite no longer being tenured, I did not give up my support for free trade.  I did not even temper my support for free trade.

It’s true that when I returned to academia in 2001, as Chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University, I again became tenured (for such is required if one is to remain long in a faculty position at a modern American research university), yet there was then no change in my support for free trade.

In short, I challenge anyone to find in my record of speaking, writing, and teaching on trade any evidence that my attitude in any way is or was ever biased by my being tenured.  And what is true for me is true, I am very confident, for nearly all other economists, tenured or not, who endorse free trade.

Again, the case for free trade is not a case for net job destruction the costs of which are allegedly offset by some greater benefit (such as lower prices for consumer goods).  Instead, central to the economic case for free trade is the reality that such trade, contrary to a widespread myth, not only does not cause net job destruction, it raises over time the quality and pay of jobs.  Yes, free trade requires that particular workers sometime lose particular jobs, and no one doubts that such job losses are often a terribly painful experience.  But to point out – as I (like many other economists) often point out – that any economic change requires that particular workers sometime lose particular jobs is hardly an argument the merits of which can or should be judged by whether or not those of us making the argument are tenured.