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Yes, Trump Is Unethical

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Here’s a letter to a long-time Cafe Hayek reader:

Mr. Eddie Nunez

Mr. Nunez:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You say that while I might be correct that Donald Trump doesn’t understand the economics of trade, I am “out of bounds to write as though it is unethical for our new President to favor additional trade restrictions.”

I disagree for many reasons.  But I’ll here offer only my chief one.  Mr. Trump’s ethics tell him that he (or other state officials) have the right to restrict the ways in which I may peacefully spend my own income.  But my income belongs to me; it does not belong to Trump; it does not belong to the government; it does not belong to the country or to ‘the People’; it does not belong to American corporations or to American workers.  It belongs to me and to me alone.  And of course what’s true for my income is true for the income of every other peaceful person.  Yet Trump bellows as if it is not only appropriate, but downright noble, for him to interfere in my and others’ peaceful commercial affairs, conducted with our own incomes, for the sole reason that some of those affairs are with non-Americans.  Such interference is unethical.

You likely doubt me, so let me ask: If your next-door neighbor, Jones, pokes gun at your head to order you to pay to him a fine if you continue to have your lawn mowed by a company located across town rather than by his teenage son, would you not immediately understand such coercion to be unethical?  Of course you would.  Now I challenge you to explain to me how Donald Trump’s actions on the trade front differ in any essential ways from those of this hypothetical Jones.

I can think of no essential difference.  Sure, Trump was elected to a grandiose political office.  So what?  Suppose that a majority of your neighbors vote to empower Jones to threaten you with violence in order to discourage you from buying your lawn-care services from someone outside of your neighborhood: would you then think that Jones’s actions are ethical?  I wouldn’t.

I understand that government has long interfered, and in many different ways, in the peaceful affairs of private citizens, from telling blacks where they could and couldn’t sit on buses to confiscating large chunks of citizens’ incomes for transfer to corn farmers, airplane manufacturers, and other politically powerful groups.  I regard all such interference to be unethical.  But because Trump trumpets so loudly and so proudly his promise to interfere in Americans’ commerce with non-Americans – and for no reason other than to enrich some Americans at the expense of other Americans – I focus much of my attention on this particular instance of vile, inexcusable behavior.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
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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