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The Evil that Is Economic Nationalism

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent:

Mr. Vince Vogel

Mr. Vogel:

You ask why I describe economic nationalism as “ethically offensive.”  Good question.  My reasons are two.

First, economic nationalism demands that each of us disregard, or at least discount, the welfare of some strangers relative to the welfare of other strangers for no reason other than the fact that some strangers, and not others, happen to be ruled by a government different than the one that rules us.  The range of my ethical sensibilities is not determined by something so arbitrary as political boundaries.  Economic nationalism, for example, would have me support policies that artificially inflate the incomes of workers in Michigan – who, even when unemployed, are by world standards extraordinarily rich – despite my awareness that those policies decrease the incomes of much-poorer workers in China.  An ethical system that condones or encourages such arbitrariness is repulsive.

Second, economic nationalism asserts that my fellow citizens possess some proprietary claim on my income simply because they and I are ruled by the same government.  So if a non-American seller offers to me what I judge to be a deal better than that offered to me by an American seller, economic nationalism insists that I have an ethical duty to make myself and my family worse off by rejecting the better offer in favor of the worse offer, simply because the worse offer comes from someone who also is an American.  And if I refuse to sacrifice my economic well-being in order to artificially improve that of a fellow American (who, by failing to match the better offer from his foreign rival, refuses to improve my well-being), economic nationalism applauds when my fellow American, through his agents in government, threatens to cage or to shoot me if I insist on peacefully putting my and my family’s well-being above his well-being.  This economic-nationalist attitude, and any action that it inspires, is grotesquely unethical.

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