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Free Trade is Not Founded on Religion

Hers’s an open letter to Cafe Hayek commenter Brian Villanueva:

Mr. Villanueva:

Commenting on this blog post, you attribute my support for free trade to “religious zeal.”  With respect, this charge is as trumped up as it is old and feeble.  The economic case for free trade rests not on faith or dogma but on reason and evidence.

For two and a half centuries economists have studied trade frontwards, backwards, and sideways.  We have addressed all of the arguments raised against trade with sound theory and empirical analyses.  The results of these scientific investigations overwhelmingly support the proposition that the freer is trade in any country – even when made freer unilaterally – the better off are the people of that country.

The argument for free trade is not (as some protectionists caricature it) that it creates heaven on earth; the argument is not that free trade is sufficient or even necessary for sustained and widespread economic growth; the argument is not that every instance of trade being made freer works in textbook fashion.  Instead, the foundational argument for free trade is that a government’s obstruction of its citizens’ voluntary commercial transactions with foreigners denies to its citizens gains from trade no less than its obstruction of its citizens’ voluntary commercial transactions with each other.  In short, the foundational case for free trade is that trade that spans across political borders improves people’s economic well-being no less than does trade that occurs domestically.

Therefore, to allege that “religious zeal” explains the embrace of a policy of allowing, say, Americans to trade freely with non-Americans is false.  This allegation is akin to alleging that religious zeal explains the embrace of a policy of allowing Floridians to trade freely with Minnesotans, or of a policy of allowing women to trade freely with men, or of a policy of allowing blue-eyed people to trade freely with brown-eyed people.  That a clever sophomore can spin hypotheticals in which blue-eyed people are harmed when they trade freely with brown-eyed people is no reason to elevate such hypotheticals into a basis for policy.

The fact is that each and every one of the myriad attempts to elevate political borders into an economically relevant reason to restrict trade has been met repeatedly with sound rebuttals.  So if you’re truly looking for someone to accuse of being blinded by religious zeal, don’t look at a free trader; look at a protectionist.

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

See also here.