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Protectionism Is Immoral

Here’s yet another letter to the “proud Trump man” (his term) – Nolan McKinney – who now e-mails me almost daily to accuse me and other economists of all manner of intellectual and ethical failings:

Mr. McKinney:

You now accuse me, when I defend free trade, of “work[ing] from a narrow materialistic basis.”  You allege that I don’t see trade’s “human costs.”


Perhaps the greatest contribution that economics makes to the analysis of trade is that it shows that many more humans than are seen by protectionists are affected by trade.  It’s the economist who points out that, in addition to those humans in the domestic economy whose jobs are protected by tariffs, there are humans in the domestic economy whose jobs are destroyed by tariffs.  It’s the economist who points out that the artificial hike in incomes created by tariffs for some humans in the domestic economy occurs only because other humans in the domestic economy suffer a larger, artificial cut in incomes.  And it’s the economist who understands better than anyone else that the term “human costs” is ridiculously redundant: all costs are borne by humans.

All that said, my support, ultimately, for free trade is not based on economics.  It’s based on ethics.  Convinced that particular, currently existing producers in ‘my’ country are not ethically entitled to use force or fraud to grab more of my or other Americans’ incomes than we voluntarily choose to spend on those producers’ outputs, I oppose tariffs for the same ethical reason that I oppose robbery, burglary, embezzlement, and pickpocketing.  Protectionism differs from these varieties of theft only in that its victims are generally unaware of their victimization.  One task of the economist, therefore, is to help the victims of protectionism see that they are indeed victimized – to see that portions of their incomes are confiscated only in order to enrich others unjustly.

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


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