What are the real, substantial advantages of this Union of ours? Are they not summed up in the absolute freedom of trade which it secures and the community of interests that grows out of this freedom? If our States were fighting each other with hostile tariffs, and a citizen could not cross a State boundary-line without having his baggage searched, or a book printed in New York could not be sent across the river to Jersey City without being held in the post-office until duty was paid, how long would our Union last, or what would it be worth? The true benefits of our Union, the true basis of the interstate peace it secures, is that it has prevented the establishment of State tariffs, and given us free trade over the better part of a continent.
DBx: Trade is trade. It is always an activity done by people, by flesh-and-blood individuals. Trade’s nature does not change – its benefits do not shrink and dilute, and its costs do not grow and thicken – simply because it crosses those arbitrary lines, drawn by men, to mark off the geographical territories over which each state-sovereign gets to exercise its command. Although protectionists since long before Adam Smith ever put quill to parchment have searched for some magic formula for distinguishing international from intranational trade, they have yet to discover or to concoct such a thing. Protectionists have been no more successful in their fevered endeavors to turn international trade from the gold that it is into a cheap and even dangerous base metal than have alchemists in their endeavors to turn worthless base metals into gold. But protectionists, also like alchemists, remain dogmatically devoted to their superstition, unyieldingly (if stupidly) convinced that there is some formula that, when used just so or when chanted just right, reveals international trade to be fundamentally different from domestic trade.
“Foreigners are paid much lower wages!” “Foreigners are paid much higher wages!” “Foreigners selfishly don’t want to buy from us as much as we (generous souls that we are) are willing to buy from them!” “Foreigners arrange their labor contracts differently than we arrange ours!” “Foreigners arrange their state finances differently than we arrange ours!” “Trade with foreigners will make us dependent upon others than ourselves!” “Foreigners conduct their monetary policies differently than we conduct ours!” “Foreigners aren’t us!” And on and on run the attempted justifications for preventing fellow citizens from buying and selling voluntarily, as each peacefully chooses, without interference from the state, from and to fellow human beings who happen to be citizens of a different nation.
No argument for protectionism is new. They’ve all been heard before, countless times, and refuted soundly again and again. Yet the noxious mixture of nationalism, economic ignorance, and rent-seeking keeps protectionism alive. It is simultaneously amusing and sad to encounter protectionists continuing to announce to the world, as if they are the first to make such an announcement, their ingenious discovery that trade barriers will allegedly enrich a people. Every protectionist today solemnly explains his or her justification for protection, oblivious to the reality that that justification has been trotted out for centuries only to be revealed to be illogical or factually flawed (or, usually, both).
Protectionism, as a means of enriching a people, is as ludicrous as is alchemy. It is, however, much more ugly and dangerous than is alchemy. Alchemists, after all, simply waste their own time wallowing in their futile efforts to achieve the impossible. Protectionists, by their nature, seek to achieve their ends by using threats of coercion – and, if need be, actual coercion – against peaceful people. Protectionism is both ludicrous as a means of enriching a people, and evil.