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Many Unseen – But Very Real – Fellow Citizens

Here’s a letter to a correspondent who supports free trade:

Mr. John D____

Mr. D____:

Thanks for your e-mail. You ask a timeless and difficult question: what does an advocate of free trade say to to those who lose jobs to imports?

Nothing that you say to someone who loses his or her job to changing market conditions is likely to satisfy that person.  The personal almost always trumps the abstract.  The seen hides the unseen.  The proximate overwhelms the distant.  The present is real while the future is still to be created.  This reality, however, does not diminish the importance of defending free trade honestly, unconditionally, and without apology.

Such a defense begins with the insistence that jobs are not lost to imports or to foreigners; instead jobs are lost to fellow citizens – in two ways.  First, it is the spending decisions of fellow citizens that determine when particular jobs are created and when they are destroyed.  Second, the job lost by Smith is replaced with a new (and likely very different) job filled, if not by Smith, then by Smith’s fellow citizen Jones.  So when someone complains about losing his or her job “to imports,” it is right to note that protecting that job necessarily requires that fellow citizens’ freedoms be curtailed and fellow citizens’ economic well-being be reduced.  Protection necessarily shrinks the spending power of countless fellow citizens.  Protectionism also destroys the actual jobs of many other fellow citizens (for example, jobs in domestic machine-tool factories that disappear because steel tariffs take a bite out of domestic machine-tool production) and destroys the job prospects of still other fellow citizens (for example, retail-store-management jobs that never materialize because tariffs on consumer goods reduce consumers’ demand for such goods).

Again, no such arguments will satisfy someone who believes that his job disappeared because of international trade.  But that person’s refusal to accept that these arguments are part of a sound case for free trade does not, as emotionally understandable as this refusal is, render these arguments invalid.  If we mute or trim our defense of free trade out of understandable sympathy with the unemployed worker who we see, we are complicit in supporting a system – protectionism – that not only destroys the jobs of workers who we don’t see (but who are, and whose sufferings are, every bit as real as the worker who we do see), but also will deny to our children and grandchildren a future that is as prosperous and as peaceful as possible.

In closing, I recommend to you this beautiful recent essay by my former colleague Russ Roberts.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030