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Gulled by Pronouns

Here’s a letter to my frequent, pro-economic-nationalism correspondent Nolan McKinney:

Mr. McKinney:

In your most recent e-mail you accuse me of being “gullible” for endorsing Milton Friedman’s plea for the United State to practice unilateral free trade – that is, to practice free trade regardless of the trade policies of other governments.  Your accusation, however, rests on the mistaken premise that the chief economic reason for endorsing a policy of unilateral free trade is that such a policy would persuade other governments to eliminate their trade restrictions.  In fact, the chief economic reason for endorsing a U.S. policy of unilateral free trade is to enable Americans to achieve a standard of living higher than is possible under a regime of protective tariffs and other trade restrictions.

Like all protectionists, you’re misled by the use of the pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” – as in ‘We restrict our trade today in order to persuade foreigners to buy more from us tomorrow.’  Such language masks reality, which differs in no essential ways from the following:

Farmer Jones alleges that grocer Williams, in the adjoining town, buys too little of Jones’s produce.  So Jones hires thug Jackson to obstruct the purchases that Smith – one of Jones’s fellow townsmen – attempts to make at Williams’s grocery store.  Thug Jackson assures Smith that such obstructionism is for our good; it’s meant to pressure grocer Williams into buying more from us.  Thug Jackson promises that as soon as grocer Williams agrees to buy more from us that he, thug Jackson, will stop obstructing Smith’s ability to shop at Williams’s grocery store.  But until then, there will be no cessation of Jackson’s obstructionism.  When Smith protests this harassment and demands that Jackson stop immediately, Jackson and Jones accuse Smith of being “gullible” – of naïvely supposing that grocer Williams will increase his purchases of our produce absent such obstructionism.

Smith reminds Jackson and Jones that he, Smith, is neither a member of Jones’s family nor a business partner of Jones.  Any additional prosperity that Jones might experience as a result of Jackson’s thuggery will not be an increase in our prosperity; it will, instead, be an increase in Jones’s prosperity at the expense of Smith.

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