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Is Free Trade a Problem If Some People Use Their Greater Freedom to Eat More Than Intellectuals Think Wise?

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

What’s the point of today’s report “A Nasty, Nafta-Related Surprise: Mexico’s Soaring Obesity”?  It seems to be that freer trade, because it expands the number of options open to ordinary people, is suspect if some of those people choose in ways that NGO officials, western journalists, and other intellectuals judge to be inappropriate.  And a corollary of this point is that government should perhaps obstruct trade in order to reduce the number of options open to ordinary people.

Such thinking reflects both arrogance and error.  It reflects arrogance because it presumes that freer trade should be judged by its success at prompting ordinary people to choose in ways that are applauded by intellectuals.  Such thinking reflects error because it misses the fact that economic growth generally, and not just that which is caused by freer trade, increases people’s options and, hence, increases the incidence of people choosing in ways that disturb intellectuals.  Therefore, if freer trade is disparaged because it allows some people to choose ‘unwisely,’ then economic growth more generally must be disparaged.

Are you prepared to criticize increasing prosperity – and perhaps to implicitly endorse policies that prevent increasing prosperity – because some people use their greater access to a wide variety of goods and services to make choices that offend the sensibilities of intellectuals?

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

I thank my son, Thomas, for alerting me to this report in the Gray Lady.


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