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Who’s Arrogant?

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If you’re going to criticize the case for free trade, please try to understand the case that you’re criticizing.  Blasting criticism at a half-baked or caricaturish version of the case for free trade invariably misses the mark, widely.  Paul Moroni, a commenter on this Cafe Hayek post [2], criticizes only what he wrongly believes to be the case for free trade; because he doesn’t understand what he is criticizing, his criticism misses the mark, widely.  Here’s Mr. Moroni’s comment in full [3]:

This is why free traders like DBx and Worstoll never get anywhere with their arguments. Increasing access to goods and services may be the purpose of economic activity. But for Worstoll to talk of the ‘point of it all’ is to miss the point for very many people. People want jobs. They want thw dignity that comes with work. The (temporary) economic dislocation that comes with growth can derail peoples entire lives. The arrogance of economists like DBx who say ‘you should be fine looking your wife and kids in the face after being layed off because now iPhones are cheaper’ is the reason no one likes listening to free trade diatribes. They miss the point and talk past peoples actual concerns.

Here’s my reply (also in the comments section of that earlier post):

Mr. Moroni: You see only those workers whose jobs are artificially protected by tariffs. Why do you ignore the workers whose jobs are destroyed by tariffs? Do they not suffer when they must look their families in the face to confess to having lost jobs? Is the reduction in the incomes of those families of no moment to you? You misinterpret the case for free trade to be exclusively about identifying the reduction over time in consumption opportunities; that is indeed a big part of it. But the case for free trade also identifies producers – workers, entrepreneurs, investors – who lose specific jobs, opportunities, and incomes as an inevitable result of protectionism. So one difference between, on one hand, people such as Tim Worstall [4] and myself and, on the other hand, you, is that we recognize that the losses inflicted by protectionism are larger and spread more widely than you recognize these losses to be.

One more matter: what dignity is there in using force to deny opportunities to other people simply in order to better ensure that those people patronize you as a producer? Anyone who finds dignity in such a situation doesn’t know what dignity is – and is not deserving of dignity.

Let me here add two more points (each of which will be familiar to regular patrons of Cafe Hayek).

First, specific jobs are destroyed (and created) by any and all economic change, not just by economic change that is connected with international trade.  If saving workers from the difficulties, financial and emotional, of losing jobs is a sufficient justification for government to obstruct voluntary exchanges, then Mr. Moroni (like the vast majority of protectionists) is far too modest when proposing government intervention: he should want government to stop all economic change because the concerns that motivate his opposition to free trade arise with all economic change.

When people reduce their likelihood of smoking, some workers in cigarette factories lose their jobs.  So the logic of Mr. Moroni’s argument should lead him to endorse government policies that prevent people from giving up smoking and from discouraging their children from smoking.  When automotive technology improves such that automobiles need fewer tune-ups, the logic of Mr. Moroni’s argument should lead him to endorse government polices to suppress technological improvements (in order to save auto mechanics the embarrassment and indignity of having to tell their families that they’ve lost their jobs).  When couples start having fewer children than couples had in the past, the logic of Mr. Moroni’s argument should lead him to endorse government policies that obstruct couple’s voluntary decisions about how many children to have (in order to save obstetric and pediatric nurse, child-care workers, and workers in baby-food plants from the embarrassment and indignity of having to tell their families that they’ve lost their jobs).

Second, if free traders are, as Mr. Moroni alleges, “arrogant,” then what word should we use to describe the officiousness of protectionists who presume to interfere with the ways that peaceful people engage in commerce?  Is it arrogant of Tim Worstall to defend the rights of peaceful people to buy and sell as they choose?  Is it arrogant of me to argue that government should not discriminate against commerce that happens to be transacted across political boundaries?  Is it arrogant to defend economic freedom and to warn that protectionist policies invariably are cronyist policies that benefit the select, politically powerful few at the greater expense of the invisible and unheard many?

It is a strange argument indeed that classifies those of us who wish to let all peaceful people be free to buy and sell as they choose as “arrogant,” and those who advocate government obstruction of the ways that peaceful people spend their money as not-arrogant.  Very strange indeed.

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