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I Am, I Admit, a Rule Utilitarian

Here’s a response to an e-mail from a now-regular correspondent:

Mr. Carroll Shiffrin

Mr. Shiffrin:

Finding my “inflexible” support for free trade to be “dogmatic,” you think me to be “neither scholarly or objective” when I refuse to “assess trade by taking account of its benefits AND COSTS in terms of the jobs it destroys.”

You mischaracterize my economic reason for supporting free trade: contrary to your assertion, I have indeed taken account of both the benefits and costs of allowing people to trade freely across political borders.  And having done so, I – like nearly all economists who’ve studied trade – conclude that free trade generates benefits that swamp its costs.  I conclude further that the regularity and likelihood of this happy outcome of free international trade are so high that the rule “free trade always and unconditionally” is justified.

You likely find this rule to be “dogmatic.”  So let me ask you: suppose that the question is not “Should Americans be allowed to trade freely with the Chinese?” but, instead, “Should Texans be allowed to trade freely with Hawaiians?”  Do you consider me to be inflexible and dogmatic because I support (I really do!) a policy of unconditional free trade between Texas and Hawaii?  Do you believe me to be neither scholarly nor objective by opposing a policy of giving to government officials the power to block any and all trades between Texans and Hawaiians that, according to these officials, fail a cost-benefit test?

Unless you can offer a sound economic reason why a policy of free trade between Texas and Hawaii should be replaced by a policy of ‘managed trade’ between these states – and, indeed, unless you can offer a sound economic reason why a policy of allowing you to unilaterally change the brand of gasoline you buy (or to unilaterally reduce the amount of money you spend at your local pizza parlor, or to unilaterally decrease your consumption spending, or to unilaterally give up drinking) should be replaced by a policy of politicians and bureaucrats superintending such decisions of yours and blocking those that they determine are too “costly” in terms of the jobs they destroy – you stand on flimsy scientific ground when you accuse those of us who support free trade of being dogmatic and inflexible.

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


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