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Baffling Hostility to Free Trade

Here’s a letter to a someone who disapproves of the pro-free-trade position that I took in my recent debate, at Hillsdale College, against Ian Fletcher:

Mr. Harrison Cline

Mr. Cline:

Thanks for your e-mail.  You say that you support Pres. Trump’s protectionist policies because of your “lifelong allegiance to free markets and limited Government.”  Your confidence in free markets leads you to conclude that the U.S. government “should protect us from the interventionist policies of [other] governments … which give them unfair advantages over us.”  With respect, I find your conclusion to be baffling.

If you understand that interventions by American politicians and bureaucrats into our economy weaken our economy, why do you suppose that interventions by foreign politicians and bureaucrats into their economies strengthen their economies?  Are foreign officials smarter and more ethical than American officials?  Are the constitutions of foreign governments superior to that of the U.S. government?

Further, if you understand that American politicians and bureaucrats have too little knowledge and too few sound incentives to be trusted to regulate the likes of securities and labor markets, pharmaceutical development, environmental emissions, and workplace safety in the public interest, why do you suppose that these same politicians and bureaucrats have adequate knowledge and appropriate incentives to regulate international trade in the public interest?

And if you don’t like politicians taxing your income as you earn it, why are you happy to have these same politicians taxing your income as you spend it?

I understand why people such as Bernie Sanders and others on the political left are hostile to free trade: they trust politicians and bureaucrats and distrust private markets.  Opposition to free trade, therefore, is a natural part of their larger agenda.  But I do not begin to understand why so many free-market advocates, such as yourself, are today hostile to free trade.  Such hostility is utterly inconsistent with your larger understanding of markets and with your commitment to economic freedom.

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