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How Much Do I Value X If I Am Willing to Acquire X Only At Your Expense?

Here’s a letter to my frequent e-mail correspondent Nolan McKinney:

Mr. McKinney:

You write that “globalists overlook the personal noneconomic attachments of workers to [their] jobs.”  And you argue that government “must protect these attachments.  Trade policy is not only about economics.”

I agree that trade policy should be about more than economics.  At bottom, trade policy – like all policy – should be about freedom.  It should respect the rights and dignity of individuals by not obstructing their peaceful choices.  For me, the ultimate justification for free trade is not its creation of a global economy or its contribution to raising ordinary people’s standard of living.  The ultimate justification for a policy of free trade is that it protects each individual from the pretentious interference of those who would obstruct his or her peaceful commercial choices.

Unfortunately, trade policy in fact is about economics, far too narrowly so.  It’s about protecting the incomes of politically powerful producer groups from the freedom of fellow citizens to spend their money as they choose.  Workers who truly do have “personal noneconomic attachments” to their jobs are willing, if necessary, to accept wage cuts in order to keep those jobs.  (Otherwise, what credible evidence is there of these attachments?)  But if to protect their jobs workers instead demand trade restrictions, then they’re demanding the protection, not of their “personal noneconomic attachments,” but of their monetary incomes.  And so if the workers of whom you speak are themselves unwilling to pay, by accepting lower wages, for their “personal noneconomic attachments” to their jobs, it is especially obnoxious for them to demand that government force consumers (through higher prices) and other workers (through lower wages in those other-workers’ jobs) to pay to protect these workers’ “personal noneconomic attachments.”

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