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Of Course, He Says He’s for ‘Free Trade If It’s Fair’

Here’s yet another letter to my hard-core protectionist correspondent Mr. Nolan McKinney:

Mr. McKinney:

You repeat what is perhaps the laziest (and what is certainly the lamest) argument against free trade – namely, that “the case for free trade assumes other countries practice it.”

In fact, the case for free trade rests upon no such assumption.  While all sound economists recognize that the more widespread is the freedom to trade the more prosperous are ordinary people within each trading nation, these economists recognize also that any government that restricts its citizens’ freedom to trade makes its citizens poorer regardless of how free or fettered is trade in other countries.

Suppose that you learn that the barber who regularly cuts your hair is married to a woman who demands that he personally mow his own lawn.  Your barber confesses to you that he’d much prefer to hire a lawn-care service to perform this task.  Indeed, your barber explains that the money he saves by mowing his own lawn is less than the extra income he’d earn by instead using his lawn-mowing time to cut hair.  But fearing his wife’s displeasure, he mows his lawn himself.

Upon learning of this restriction on your barber’s freedom to trade outside of his household, do you conclude that you should therefore stop buying haircuts from him?  Do you believe that, because he’s not free to import lawn-care services into his household, that you would improve your economic well-being by stopping yourself from importing this barber’s hair-cutting services into your household?  If you find the quality and price of this barber’s services attractive (as you obviously do), what do you care how much or how little he and his wife ‘choose’ to import into their household?  Surely you must see that if you stop buying haircuts from this barber because he isn’t free to buy lawn-care services, you would damage yourself economically.

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